Friday, March 31, 2006

On The Way to Sister Sophie’s Clinic:

In December, conditions were so dangerous in Port-au-Prince that we didn’t go to one of our regular workplaces, a clinic run by an order of Catholic sisters on the outskirts of the city. It was not safe for Sister Sophie to send a driver for us and the circuitous route the driver would take made the trip to the clinic last one hour.

At least temporarily, things have improved greatly. Kidnappings and all crimes are down. Pierre picked us up at 7:45 a.m. and the trip only took 20 minutes, even with a couple of UN soldiers from Brazil pulling us over to check the car’s papers. Pierre said the city has been quiet since the elections. “Before the elections, there was violence. Afterwards, it is calm,” he said. This doesn’t seem like a coincidence and is evidence that the violence was more political in nature than criminal. People were frustrated by Aristide’s ouster and the interim government, which didn’t seem to have the interests of the poor in mind.

The ride to the clinic is an exploding, visual cornucopia, a moving collage come to life. A cow ambles down the sidewalk next to a child walking to school. A little boy in raggy clothes perches on the railing of a bridge over a riverbed that is mainly dry despite the frequent evening rains. I wave and he smiles and waves back. The crowds that surround one driving through PAP can seem impersonal and overwhelming and then all of a sudden with eye contact, a brief, intimate connection is made. A grammar school aged child stands naked next to a water pump, examining his dusty jeans. A woman walked out of a hut clutching the hand of a toddler dressed in clothes that are impossibly pristine white, given the dirt that is everywhere in Haiti. Four little boys in matching tan shorts and checkered mauve and blue shirts, their school’s uniforms, try to hail our SUV as if it’s a tap tap. One of the rare Haitian senior citizens sits in a straight-backed chair on his little porch, his head bowed, asleep.

Everyone is telling us that Haitians are placing great hope in the new president Rene Preval. While the poor are already happy with him, he seems to be striking the right tone with the wealthy in his meetings in Washington D.C. with the World Bank, IMF, and U.N. He wants the U.N to remain and he wants foreign investment. Sister Sophie, always a realist, thinks that governing will be difficult for Preval. “There are three groups in Haiti: the poor who voted for Preval, the intellectuals who favored Manigat, and the rich who wanted Baker.” She said the people who don’t want Preval are waiting to make their move. “The Haitian people are very patient,” she said.

Yesterday some friends of ours who run an orphanage told us what happened in Haiti when the people stormed the Hotel Montana in February. The Montana is the ritziest place in Haiti, on par with a luxury hotel in the U.S. It is up on a mountain overlooking PAP. The election commissioners were there trying to decide whether a runoff election should be held, something that many thought would be fraudulent, given Preval’s enormous vote tally in the first round. Kofi Annan and Bishop Desmond Tutu were also there. Somehow, the people busted through the gates of the hotel and were frolicking in the pool and hotel environs. Our friend told us unmarked white helicopters, probably from the U.S. special forces flew in and were hovering over the Montana. When they started flying circles in unison, which according to our friend, is firing position, he had all the children go inside. Shooting wasn’t necessary; there was no damage to the hotel and the people left peacefully. It’s telling that the U.S. would fly in to protect this hotel and its clients, though.

Yvon, Sister’s other driver, took us back to our place after clinic was over. As a testament to how things have changed, he drove one of the most direct routes back, through Cité Soleil. The barricades preventing traffic had been removed and U.N tanks were posted throughout. The street leading to Soleil was re-christened Dred Wilme Blvd. in honor of one of the gang leaders who was felled by a U.N. or Haitian police bullet a few months ago. We see evidence of all the bullets in the holes in the walls and buildings that we pass going through the seaside slum.

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