Haiti’s Splendor Within

by Edward B. Rackley

Cathedral_du_cap_haitien_002 While other countries are rediscovering people power and casting out dictators, Haiti is allowing them back. ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier came and went last January; Aristide now has a passport and may return any moment. If Baby Doc’s mute visitation was a desperate bid to correct a country’s freefall, his affect conveyed the opposite: an unreadable face and inchoate gestures of a now pitiful, once grandiose despot. Aristide’s return will be neither silent nor impassive.

So ended 2010 in Haiti, surely the country’s worst year since independence in 1804. The massive quake in January, then Hurricane Tomas, followed by a crippling epidemic of cholera. The year ended with a rocky electoral contest, still unresolved. These unwelcome malheurs conspired to attract the gaze of international media, holding it momentarily. Other spectacles now crow for our attention. Eclipsed by Libya and her neighbors, Haiti’s grip remains tenuous, its silence ominous. Jokes about the depths to which it has sunk—now a platform for foreign dignitaries so low even Sarah Palin can step up—would be funny if they weren’t true.

Leveled to rubble in January 2010, Port-au-Prince is gradually reconstituting itself, but progress will be painfully slow. The city was already mired in failed urban policies long before the catastrophic shudder; the flight of human capital among the political class only advanced as Haiti’s crisis deepened. Today’s void means easy access for anyone of means seeking political office, including pop singers at home and abroad (Michel Martelly and Wyclef). Haiti’s exhausted political class requires new blood, but where are the viable candidates? Popular elections rarely mean the collective interest is served; instead, a leader’s wish becomes his followers’ command. State-sponsored thuggery is a Haitian specialty.

To a new arrival, as I recently was, the obstacles confronting the average Haitian appear to stack up, layer by layer, to a point of monolithic immobility.

But get out of the capital, focus on a subset of problems limited to a smaller area, and out of Haiti’s Rorschach inkblot solutions begin to take shape. Another reason to leave Port-au-Prince is the wealth of history, culture and unsurpassed natural beauty that open up, clouded or crushed by the capital’s teeming chaos. My first week in Cap Haitien on Haiti’s north coast revealed an adventurer’s paradise, largely undiscovered because its intimidating degree of dysfunction and decaying infrastructure make it impenetrable to the average tourist.

At around 700,000, Cap Haitien is Haiti’s second largest city, once a major hub for commercial shipping and home of a formidable navy whose range covered the entire Caribbean. It is reachable directly by air from Fort Lauderdale and Port-au-Prince, with two decent hotels and one beachfront resort in nearby Labadie. A gorgeous, recently renovated grande place hosts several architectural treasures, including this cathedral. Yet the rest of the town is deliriously overcrowded, with filthy open sewers, blocked drainage ditches and labyrinths of enormous rubbish towers reaching skyward.

Daily riots lit up the urban grid during my visit. It was elections in a time of cholera, and people were convinced that Nepalese peacekeepers had deliberately introduced the cholera strain into the water supply. Rumor trumped truth and as the violence escalated, we hunkered down. This was the “worm’s eye view” in action, a consequence of the perennial victimhood I see across the Haitis of the world: you’re down so low, everything seems poised to crush you.

Two indelible features of northern Haiti continue to churn in my mind. One is the vast and unexploited tourism potential across the North, owing to its long, rich history, and to the region’s stunning natural beauty on land and at sea. Second are the reasons for the region’s relatively flat economy, and the enormous unrealized potential there as well. Haiti’s northern coast is truly nothing short of a hands-on, open-air museum, a living history book, yet closed to the outside world.

Why for instance were local authorities and economic actors unable or unwilling to develop the stunning cultural and natural bounty of the north coast? Of equal calibre to Peru’s Machu Picchu or Egypt’s Pharaonic sites, the historical reach of these attractions includes and predates Haitian history. Together they represent major chapters in the discovery and development of the New World, and the societies that predate it.

An excellent example is the now-restored Citadelle Laferrière from 1820, a UNESCO World Heritage site, an imposing defensive structure that attests to Haiti’s former military might and regional dominance in the early years after independence. Visible from the ocean and across the northern district, visitors to the Citadel today are few. Physical access is somewhat demanding, much as Machu Picchu was before appropriate infrastructure was built, but the effort is amply rewarded.


Other fascinating dimensions of the island’s past and its centrality to western history include the mysterious rock carvings left by the island’s original inhabitants, the Taino; the ongoing quest for Christopher Columbus’s 1492 first encampment, La Navidad, and the sunken hull of the Santa Maria; the scores of fortress ruins built over centuries of Spanish and French occupation; evidence and artifacts documenting the rise of African slave labor, its cultural fusions and contributions to Haiti’s former economic dominance in the Caribbean; and key sites of the Haitian revolution, such as the decisive Battle of Vertières.

Other wonders include the “Haitian Versailles”—the Sans Souci Palace at Milot (below)—the first capital of northern Haiti; the crumbling Fort Liberté guarding the north’s most important harbor; the eerie mountain-top ruins of Fort Crête Rouge; the dreamy languor of an undeveloped coastline whose idyllic islands and miles of vibrant coral reefs are all unknown to outsiders.


“If you build it, they will come” was the recipe to build tourism I heard in Cap Haitien from economic actors there. Once the appropriate infrastructure was in place, they thought, tourism would magically emerge and flourish. Maybe they were right: Machu Picchu and Abu Simbel are comparable models of success, both in countries with histories of political unrest. Nothing prohibits Haiti from similar achievements.

But vibrant tourism is no mundane connect-the-dots exercise, its conditions for success are not reducible to lodging or well-trained guides at key historic sites. In a fragile state like Haiti, tourism first requires a compact between public authorities and economic actors, one built on careful negotiation of mutual interests. Nothing in Haitian society today suggests mutual trust between political and economic elites.

Frustrations among potential investors, local and international, are high; losses have been great. Dubious legal grounds for land ownership, the justice system's inability to fairly address breach of contract, arbitrary customs duty on imported equipment and inability to control civil unrest—a frequent source of property damage—are some of the factors mentioned by private sector when asked about impediments to development in the North.

But Haiti’s greatest challenge is widely recognized, deeply historical, and not limited to the North: its wealth and commercial power is controlled by a limited number of families to such an extent that the powers of political office become redundant. If that clique is averse to entrepreneurial risk, nothing moves. And in politically unstable times, large scale commerce typically retracts into its protective shell. When a friend described the Haitian status quo as ‘minimum effort, maximum gain’, I thought of all the other places I’d seen this mode of risk mitigation, from the US telecomms sector to the Burundian coffee industry.

The US traversed a comparable impasse after the Civil War, when a handful of industrial leaders challenged the federal government’s ability to limit their control of markets. Cornelius Vanderbilt captured this struggle between capitalism and rule of law perfectly: “What do I care about the law—ain’t I got the power?” In many emerging democracies where I work, from Haiti to Congo to Thailand, powerful families continue to dominate economic development, often bucking the reins of government oversight and control.

Where central authorities are weak or corrupt, rule of law becomes a plaything of the oligarchs. But families can outlast the fury of despots and changing political weather; they have time on their side. In Haiti, given a window of political stability, one hopes its economic cliques will spring into action, and help end the country's dependency on foreign handouts.