Haiti: Stable at Last?

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — The island of Haiti is surprisingly easy to get to from the United States. Pay $300 for a round trip ticket from Miami, and an hour and a half later an Airbus 300 descends from the Caribbean skies to deposit you at the gates of the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port au Prince, and into the middle of a nation both hurting from decades of instability and full of a renewed sense of optimism after restoration of basic security following a humanitarian intervention by U.N. troops.

World Politics Review will be featuring a series of reports from Haiti over the next few weeks to focus attention on this Caribbean nation that normally only captures headlines when its people are fleeing in boats to America or another coup brings violence to its streets. During the week we are here, myself and another WPR reporter, Carmen Gentile, will be trying to answer the question: What is different about Haiti this time around? Could Haiti finally be on track to stability and peace after decades of violence, poverty and despair?

In order to gain a sense of where Haiti is at the moment and where it might be headed, we will be embedding with members of the U.N. peacekeeping force, interviewing experts on human rights, meeting with members of the nascent HNP (Haitian National Police), and traveling to see U.N. work being done outside the capital in the city of Gonaive. In addition to writing the occasional article and posting the occasional picture, Carmen and I both have video cameras and upon our return will be preparing a series of video reports from the interviews we do and the places we visit. So make sure to check back throughout the month of August and into September to see our video series on the current state and future direction of Haiti.

Arrival in Port au Prince

American Airlines flight 803 departs from gate A10 of Miami’s International Airport. Waiting to board, you begin to hear rapid-fire conversations in French as well the distinctive kreyole ayisyen, or Kreyol, the Haitian language based on modified French and some West African languages and influenced by Spanish and Portuguese. The crowd in the airport lounge is a cross-section of the Haitian elite, those with the means to travel back and forth between two diametrically opposed worlds of wealth and poverty. That poverty becomes obvious as our plane descends into Port au Prince, flying over the slums of Cité Soleil and the thousands of corrugated steel shacks erected side by side and housing hundreds of thousands of Haiti’s poorest citizens, many forced here from the countryside to find work. Visions of the film “Ghosts of Cite Soleil” immediately spring to mind. Environmental damage is evident as well, dusty roads running down the spines of denuded mountain forests that reach far off into the distance.

Most of the passengers are Haitians, but there are a few blan (from the French word blanc, the Haitian word for all foreigners, even those who happen to be black) sprinkled in as well, mainly from France judging by their passports. Expecting to be mobbed by hustlers eager to part a green blan from his money, I’d arranged to have a driver from Walls International Guest House pick me up once I cleared customs. The foolishness of this arrangement becomes apparent as three separate drivers all claiming to be sent from Walls approach me. To stall for time, I do what most Haitians seem to be doing, and buy a cell phone from one of the airport vendors.

In a country of 8 million where some estimates indicate only 60,000 working telephone lines exist, Haitians are bypassing the communication problem by purchasing cellphones at a dizzying pace from a variety of carriers. Irish-based Digicel appears to be a favorite with their wide network and free incoming calls bringing communications to Haitians who had previously been completely cut off from the rest of the country. $15 buys me a phone and 12 minutes. I get in touch with the real owner of Walls as the two imposters give up and hurry away. Minutes later I’m in the back of a pickup truck, gunning down the roads of Port au Prince. We bounce down side roads for a while until a gate to a building opens. We enter, the gate shuts, and I’m at Walls. The lights flicker from time to time as the generator kicks in to compensate for loss of city power, but with wireless access amazingly available in my room and a meal waiting for me as I arrive, my first day in Port au Prince comes satisfactorily to a close.

Aaron Ernst is World Politics Review video editor.

Related video: “Haiti’s Fuel Problem