Fiona McGarry in Haiti – Report 1
Inequality ingrained in Haitian life
The flight from New York to Port-au-Prince reflects many of the inequalities in Haitian society today.
Even at the departure gate in JFK, where a tiny number of first-class passengers are whisked aboard the plane, well ahead of the majority of economy travellers, evidence of a deeply segregated society is clear. Most of the land and the wealth of this country of 10 million, are held by just one percent of the population. Those who can afford to fly first-class represent a tiny sector of Haitian society – the owners of the banks, supermarkets and car dealerships. These are also the owners of mountain villas and beach-side homes. Many have properties in Miami where they rub shoulders with fellow millionaires.
Securing a travel visa – let alone a green card to live in the US – is another hurdle that millions of Haitians will never cross. The gleaming new US Embassy building in Tabarre, outside Port-au-Prince, is a virtual fortress. Appointments for entry are strictly controlled. When someone does secure a meeting with visa officials, rejections are common, and feedback as to the reasons is scant.
Every year, thousands of desperate Haitians, leave the country in boats bound for Miami – or travel for hours by bus into the neighbouring Dominican Republic (DR). Those who make it to DR undetected must scrape by at the bottom of the food chain, but the majority of those who leave by boat are discovered and sent home – bereft of the precious dollars they scraped together for their escape.
Those flying home to Haiti – whether first class or economy – are the lucky ones. Many have their cases bulging with items they plan to sell on the streets and in markets. Several passengers are wearing stacks of hats – more merchandise for the street stalls that have cropped up on every junction in the capital.
At JFK’s departures gate a small gaggle of ‘blancs’ [whites] like myself, hover confusedly – not quite sure what their place is in the scheme of things, regarded with suspicion by some Haitians and with patient bemusement by others. Haiti has become known as the ‘Republic of NGOs’, and several of those travelling are visiting Haiti with charitable organisations who are involved in everything from building to tree-planting. Some are the staff of private enterprises who are investing in Haiti and providing one of the country’s long-term lifelines.
Aboard the plane, the air stewards are clearly stressed. I later learn that the huge cases and outsize luggage that many Haitians bring back home are a constant source of frustration for staff. The ‘blancs’ receive a little more in the way of courtesy, and that’s a very uncomfortable experience. While my breakfast order is carefully noted, the elderly Haitian woman beside me receives scant attention. She complains loudly about being ‘oublie’ [forgotten], but to no avail.
Once the immigration forms are distributed, another issue becomes clear. When the lady beside me hasn’t completed her form after some time, I assume it’s for lack of a pen. When I offer her one, she says he must wait for help from an air steward. When I look around, it becomes clear that most of the older Haitians aboard the flight can neither read nor write. Haiti is a country with a literacy rate of less than 50 per cent. A gregarious young man in a centre seat is doing a brisk trade in filling forms. He jokes with an elderly man beside him as he questions him about his date of birth, saying he’s going to write 1980 instead of 1940.
While literacy levels are low among the older generations who grew up in politically turbulent times; there are well-founded fears for those of school-going age. The earthquake of January 2012 caused the destruction of thousands of schools. To-date, estimates of the number of children who remain out of school range between 600,000 and two million. Rebuilding of school facilities has been painfully slow. Despite President Michel Martelly’s ‘National Fund for Education’, which promises to introduce universal free education for children aged six to 12, there is growing doubt about the government’s ability to manage and fund this ambitious plan. Most of school rebuilding progress has been spear-headed by private companies, including Denis O’Brien’s Digicel. By last January, Digicel had rebuilt 50 schools. It has pledged to have another 80 rebuilt by 2014.
Views of Haiti from the air offer a bird’s eye picture of a nation in chaos. From the plane, infrastructural damage across Port-au-Prince is clear. The earthquake left an estimated 10 million cubic metres of debris and, to-date, only around half of that has been cleared.
On landing, there is evidence of progress with the rebuilding of Toussaint Louverture Airport, which was severely damaged in the earthquake. A Creole band welcomes new arrivals and the queues at immigration are well managed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for baggage collection. There, chaos reigns. The tiny luggage carousel is overloaded with cases being jettisoned left and right as panicked travellers look on. A docket system is in operation and, for a fee, attendants will recover baggage deposited in random piles around the arrivals hall. The process is a long one and the heat is stifling. Offers of help abound, but assistance comes at a price and a polite, but firm: ‘Non mesi’ [‘no thanks’ in Haitian Creole] is the best approach. However, if you do decide to pay the fee ($1 is rate recommended by locals and volunteers, though attendants will ask for at least $5) rest assured that the money will go to those who need it most. Everyone working in Haiti is supporting a large extended family. Some estimates of unemployment run as high as 80 per cent. The average wage, for those lucky enough to have a job, is around $5 a day and, since the earthquake and the influx of aid workers, the cost of living is as high as anywhere in the western world.
Photo one: This stone hut is typical of housing in the suburbs outside Port-au-Prince.