Special Report
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
Posted March 31, 2004
the atlanta journal constitution logo.jpg (4379 bytes)

Haiti rich and poor at war


By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The orange peel was removed with the utmost care, in one long, thin strip, and not one speck of savory fruit was wasted. Even the peel will be used : It hangs from a rusty nail under the tin roof of the one-room shack where Fanfan Cherie lives, and it says everything about his life and the life of Haiti’s impoverished masses.

"We must save that to start our charcoal fire for cooking," said Cherie, a muscular but far too thin man of 33. He is a plumber and welder who has not worked steadily in years, despite his best efforts to find a job. "But today there is no food anyway, so there is no fire in the kitchen. It will be another day of hunger."

Five miles away, on the outskirts of a slum called Cité Soleil, Marie Louise Baker chokes back tears as she surveys the gutted ruins of her family’s textile assembly factory, which was destroyed by marauders Feb. 28, the day before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile.

"When I look at this, it is a feeling of destruction," she said. "They broke all the machines and then burned everything. My family has lost all that we built in 30 years of work. We invested everything here. None of our money left Haiti. And now our 800 employees have lost their jobs. Each job here supports about 10 people. That’s 8,000 people now with no income."

Cherie and Baker : Their two faces, just like their backgrounds, couldn’t be more distinct. Cherie is dark and handsome, with piercing eyes, while Baker is light-skinned and striking, possessed of a grace and beauty that belie her 59 years.

They are the two faces of Haiti, and their lives speak much about the country’s divided past, as well as its hope for a future of unity and progress, breaking a cycle of 200 years of violence and failed governments.

From its founding in 1804 as the world’s first independent black republic, Haiti has been riven by resentments, suspicion and exploitation, pitting its overwhelming black majority against a tiny elite, probably less than 1 percent of the population, that owns most of the wealth.

When black slaves overthrew their French colonial masters, they went on a rampage that prompted whites to flee. But staying behind was a tiny class of mixed-race people, called mulattos, who moved quickly to take over the plantations.

The black generals who led the rebellion set up Haiti’s government. The mulattos slipped into a role as the country’s class of business and plantation owners. Over the next two centuries, the two coexisted uneasily, at times joining in quiet alliances, at other times resigned to stand-offs edged with resentment.

Haiti’s governments were rarely successful. It became one of those countries that exemplified the term kleptocracy - its governments were run primarily for the purpose of stealing from the public coffers. Haitian dictators were typically brutal, many ousted by violent coups d’état, which have struck the beleaguered country 33 times in 200 years, an average of once every six years.

In the midst of such corruption, the elite, for the most part, did not develop a sense of civic duty. Often forced to pay bribes to conduct business, many took the easy way out, building lives of luxury on the backs of poor workers paid pennies for their labor.

The sad history created a contrast in geography : Port-au-Prince is a sprawling city of 2 million, with the poor living jumbled in ramshackle shantytowns along the hot lowlands while the rich reside in opulent walled compounds on the cooler slopes of the mountain range that rises abruptly from the city’s heart.

Fifteen years ago, there were great hopes that Haiti might finally be shaking off its past. Aristide, a fiery-tongued slum priest, burst onto the scene, winning Haiti’s first free and fair elections on a promise to serve and lift up the poor.

Removed once in a military coup, then restored in 1994 through U.S. intervention, Aristide betrayed his populist promises, his critics say, instead building a corrupt government of cronies who looted the national treasury in the worst Haitian tradition, even as they enforced their will through the use of armed gangs.

Baker does not know who burned her family’s factory, but there seems little doubt the destruction came at the hands of Aristide loyalists. The Bakers were part of the opposition, a nonviolent group that demanded Aristide’s resignation.

A hallmark of Aristide’s oratory was his excoriation of Haiti’s rich, whom he likened to rocks in a stream washed by cool waters. He often called on his followers to help the rich learn about the life of the poor, whom he likened to rocks baking in the hot Caribbean sun.

Cherie, from the same small town in southern Haiti where Aristide was born, was a strong Aristide supporter.

"Haiti’s whole problem is the elites," he said. "When Aristide tried to do anything to help the poor, the elites would block him."

But Baker says her family built its factory near one of Haiti’s most dangerous, hopeless slums because she cares about the poor.

"I will not leave Cité Soleil," she said, vowing to rebuild, even if it takes generations. "We are working the best way we know how to change Haiti, by creating jobs, by paying taxes to the state. We are not here to step on the poor. We’re trying to provide jobs to help them improve their lives."

Some of Baker’s employees have worked for the family for decades. They earned the equivalent of about $4 per day, roughly four times Haiti’s minimum wage.

Cherie has never been touched in his life by any such concern on the part of Haiti’s rich.

"The only work I find is small jobs for the elite," he said. "They offer me a job that I know should cost 5,000 gourdes [about $125], and they say they will only pay me 500 gourdes [about $12]. If I refuse, they will find someone else, because there are too many here who will do anything to feed their families."

"I finished high school," Cherie said. "I wanted to become an engineer or a doctor. But those jobs are only for the elite in Haiti. No poor person like me has money to go to the university for such an education."

Baker’s grandfather was an Episcopal missionary from England, her grandfather a trader and her father an agronomist. She and some of her siblings opened a tiny sewing operation in 1970, making it grow through hard work and steady reinvestment of the profits.

Her brother, Charles, is one of the most outspoken leaders of the Group of 184, a coalition of business, civic and peasant groups that sprang up in the past 18 months in an effort to resolve Haiti’s political crisis.

"Haiti has always been divided between rich and poor," Baker said. "That’s why the Group of 184 was started. We are all one nation, and we spent months going around the country holding meetings, telling the leaders of peasant groups that we are all brothers and sisters. . . . We are finally working toward the same objective and not looking at each other across a divide."

Whether such an appeal will break down the suspicions of the poor is the question that may dictate Haiti’s future.

For now, Cherie seems almost too broken by his poverty to muster much trust or hope.

His 15-year-old daughter, Linda, a pretty girl with colorful plastic beads in her braided hair, is soft-spoken and polite.

"I am studying hard in school," she declares. "I want to be a doctor - or an engineer."

Reprinted from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of March 31, 2004.

Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from wehaitians.com
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous