A first look at Port au Prince

This morning, prior to leaving the city for the countryside, we went to Haiti’s cathedral to pay our respects at the funderal mass of a respected Catholic father who recently passed away. Father Ednea Devaloin was a colleague of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a proponent of the liberation theology movement in the CAtholic Church. Several thousand people attended the service.

The streets of Port au Prince are a swirl of human activity. The main streets are paved and filled with the “tap tap’ vehicles that serve as public transport for most ordinary people and pedestrians making their way along the narrow sidewalks. Most tap taps are converted pick up trucks, and fares cost 20 cents or so. Secondary streets are unpaved and very rough.

I wondered about garbage collection in the city. I notice that it piles up in the streets and I saw groups of men with wheelbarrows cleaning up. Each neighbourhood has its structure for the cleaning, we are told, some paid by the city, some just organized by neighbourhood committees. A Haitian friend says the real problem is getting the collected waste transported out. This is an example of assistance that the UN could be providing to Haiti if it were to stop concentrated its money and resources on the military side of its presence.

There is a small Venezuelan contingent in Port au Prince, from the armed forces. They are building a new sporting center in the city and associated facilities in the surrounding neighbourhood. They also assist with street cleaning in one of the busiest districts of the city, where the largest public market is located. Their presence, and that of the Cuban medical personnel is is very discreet, but well known and appreciated by the population.

I asked my friend about the role of the Haitian National Police today. He says there has been a big change since the election of President Preval last year. The force does not carry out repression against popular demonstrations anymore. It knows that this would not be accepted by the government.

The acts of repression in Cite Soleil and other poor neighbourhoods in recent months have been carried out exclusively by the armed forces of MINUSTAH. That’s the acronym of the United Nations occupation force that came into Haiti following the overthrow of President Aristide in FEbruary, 2004.

What is the attitude of the people to MINUSTAH? Most want them out of Haiti, we are told by the Haitians we ask. But so long as they are here, they should use their money, equipment and technical know-how to improve the country’s infrastructure. Meanwhile, long term development programs are needed here and the UN and countries participating in MINUSTAH must be pressured to provide it.

We will be asking some hard questions along these lines when we meet with UN and Canadian government officials later during the visit here.

On July 15, a large demonstration took place in Port au Prince to mark the birth date of Aristide and demand the social reforms tht his government symbolized and sought to implement. Organizers say the crowd was at least 50,000 people. So much for MINUSTAH’s claim that Aristide is “a man of the past.”