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On the Streets of Port-au-Prince

Latin America and the Caribbean

For a very brief historical moment, all Haitians in Port-au-Prince found themselves in the same boat.

But when President Preval announced to his compatriots that he was a victim like everybody else, they shook their heads in disgust. Preval, like Obama, came to power with the support of the poor, head of the political party Lespwa, meaning “Hope.” When he joined forces with the Haitian elite and their North American backers last year to enact a sub-minimum wage for the garment industry against the will of the legislature, the people had already given up on him. “I only had one room and now it’s flattened,” Vilmond told me, adding that he saved his prize possession: a biography of Martin Luther King. “Preval lost his palace and he’s waiting for someone to rebuild it for him. Before the earthquake, the country belonged to him, today he says it’s ours.”

I managed to send him two hundred American dollars – Vilmond, not Preval. He gave fifty dollars to an eighteen-year old youth from his choir, an orphan with no family to care for him. During the quake, the roof caved in upon him and broke his arm. The following day, two of his friends were taking him to Saint-Marc, on the coast north of Port-au-Prince, where they knew of a clinic that might treat him. They met people on the road who told them that the border was open and Haitians were being allowed into the Dominican Republic for treatment. So they went to a clinic there. It was full of wounded Haitians. The doctors, the young man says, spent no time with anyone and amputated everything. As soon as his operation was finished, the authorities forced him to go back to Haiti, since he had no passport. Now, he’s back in Port-au-Prince without an arm. “But it was just broken,” he now ponders. He was feeling down and so Vilmond went to joke with him a little. “Everyone’s fighting for food,” Vilmond says. “But he doesn’t feel like it. Besides, he only has one arm now. But he’s okay. We joked about things.”

The rest of the money he divided up among the people in his group – konbit – that he knew would use it to buy provisions for everyone to share. He says that he wants everyone in his konbit to share whatever he or she can find. So he didn’t keep any of the money, but decided he must trust them to bring back essential things for the group.

He says that there are signs everywhere that the class and social divisions are starting to re-establish themselves. In his konbit, the more wealthy members have gravitated back to their properties. The houses are flattened, but they are now living behind the walls that surrounded them. He says that they were starting to be offended by the smell of the poor people’s feet. But they come back for the food.

Kokorats are abandoned children – girls and boys – who live on the streets of Port-au-Prince. No one cares for them and people treat them with contempt. They return the sentiment. Kokorats own only the dirty clothes that they wear; they sleep in abandoned cars, beg, steal, and survive as they can. There are thousands of kokorats in Port-au-Prince. (One of the most memorable characters that I met in Haiti was a kokorat who one day appeared at the door of the orphanage that I used to visit and was accepted inside. The managers used to require the orphans to sing for foreigners (blan yo) passing through in order to raise money. It was demeaning. The children hated it. He would have none of it. He was thirteen years old. He used to try to beat me up – wrestle me to the ground – whenever he saw me. He never could, but he tried valiantly. After a few weeks, he left the orphanage and was seen on the street again: shoeless, filthy, and mocking the orphans.) The earthquake didn’t change things much for the kokorats. They have always lived the way everyone is living now. Vilmond says that they’re having fun. They have taken to looking for bourgeois families forced to sleep under the stars. The kokorats all urinate into containers and, when they have collected enough, they pour the contents over the bourgeois campsites as they sleep.

Some people are going through the rubble looking for things that they might be able to sell. He says that some people seem to be helping to look for bodies in the rubble, but just check the pockets for money. He says, generally, it’s a temporary redistribution of wealth downwards. The police stand guard with their rifles, but “the mouse can always wait until the cat turns his back.”

Yesterday, as he went through Delmas 31, there was a truck distributing water. In Haiti, water is usually sold on the street in little plastic sachets that cost a couple of cents each. The companies that usually sell them are distributing them for free. Vilmond isn’t sure if someone is subsidizing them or they are absorbing the cost. However, there is no way for the truck drivers who are distributing the thousands of little sachets to distinguish the different people in the crowds that surround the trucks waiting for water. He says there are those who quench their terrible thirsts, others who collect them for resale, and then the vakabon, the thugs that, for Vilmond, poison life in Port-au-Prince. When one truck left, the vakabon threw the sachets at the truck and delighted in watching them explode. The crowd knows them all too well. Those who didn’t get water saw the precious resource absorbed into the dry earth. Vilmond is calling it “The Water Wars.”

The merchant women have set up their vegetable stands again, but the prices have doubled and, sometimes, tripled since the earthquake. They are starting to sell their small packages of juice for 20 gouds each, about 70 American cents. Cooking oil has gone from 6 $US to 13 $US a gallon. (The daily salary in the foreign assembly plants is about 4 $US; less than 3 $ in the garment industry.) He thinks that with the exodus into the countryside, there is less produce coming to Port-au-Prince. And, of course, the demand is high.

The colourful and spirited people that make up Port-au-Prince are rising out of the rubble. These social and economic roles were formed in already desperate conditions. They know what to expect from the each other. They know who will be generous, who will look to profit, who will comfort, and who will harm. From the government, they know to expect nothing. But the people are there and they are talking about the future.

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