Monday, July 25, 2005

returned to Port-au-Prince after 2-day Les Cayes visit

Too much detail to pack in and not sure how long manager of this week's guest house will alllow me on this computer, but want to get one or two details down. I wrote for 45 minutes from the Southeastern town of Les Cayes and then connection was lost seconds before I was ready to post, oh well. Today we had a few visits with prisoners in jails around Les Cayes that, as a Haitian friends says of cruel realities down here, really put bad hair days in the U.S. in perspective, ditto internet snafus. Horribly crowded conditions, crappy food, long sentences, pretty much hell on earth. More on them soon, need to get documentation together with my colleague and comrade Doug before committing to cyber-space.

On Saturday we were parked downtown not far from the National Penitentary in our 4-wheel drive rental for our friends to get their vehicle so we could all go to Les Cayes in a 2-car convoy. I spent a while staring at the outrageously colorful tap-taps (covered pick-up trucks or vans with benches in back for passengers) driving people by, checking out ridiculous variety of expressions and exhortations painted on the sides of them in all manner of loud colors, especially red, blue, green, and yellow. My favorites were the ones with huge paintings of the owner's kids, much better than the ridiculous oversize images of Arnold and Sly Stallone (who probably were inspirations for some of the US Special Forces-trained paramilitaries that came into Haiti from the Dominican Republic in the winter of 2004 to unseat Aristide). After a quick narcoleptic back seat doze I began reaching for a collection of essays by diaspora Haitians edited by Edwidge Danticat, when shots rang out in the vicinity and everyone around us went apeshit. Our rock-solid driver Antoine said "this is where you have to chill" and let others speed off before slowly pulling out of our space and making a turn to drive out of the area. Given my experience the last time I was in Haiti in a similar situation, when our driver blindly swerved into a U-turn and was instantly hit by a pick up trick (nobody was hurt but the compact in question sustained major front end damage), I was impressed and relieved by Antoine's cool. Perhaps I'll actually remember that the creole expression 'nou poze' means 'we chill.'
As we drove out of Port-au-Prince `we drove by Village de Dieu, where some months back Haitian police shot and killed a Haitian reporter with a Miami radio station who happened to be in the way when firing on civilians commenced. The neighborhood was probably described as "a sprawling seaside slum" in the New York Times, that seems to be a pretty popular phrase in Haiti pieces. We drove on through what numerous sources describe as desperate poverty characterized by inadequate sanitation and dubious hope of potable water, but there was also a vitality and liveliness in the spirit of people on the street. As Antoine said about Haitians that take off to other islands with tough labor conditions, Haitians are used to hard work and can survive anything. That tenacity is both inspiring and humbling.

The condition of the road to Les Cayes could safely be described as bad to bad beyond belief, with occasional stretches of something approaching a smooth paved surface. One major bridge was wiped out by the recent tropical storm visitation someone inexplicably named Dennis, so we just drove through the river. Luckily it wasn't at a raging torrent phase. Our two vehicles swerved madly back and forth across the road in an approximation of some sort of amusement park ride devoted to avoiding randomly placed potholes. Given Antoine's habit of relying on honking as a protective measure while passing on corners, there were moments as a passenger that I found much more scary than the gunfire in Port-au-Prince, but it was a fun ride nonetheless.

En route we stopped and visited some friends of one of our travelling companions. A local kid thoughtfully scaled a coconut tree and knocked down a pile of nature's bounty, then set about hacking off the tops for us to drink coconut juice to our heart's content. Of course the delicious meat was also offered up. Country hospitality at its finest, not the last time we'd experience it over the weekend.

Along the road to the Southeast we hit numerous UN checkpoints at which Haitian police also hung out. By the end of the day we saw Uruguans, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, and later saw a UN 'Civpol' in a jail outside Les Cayes.

More to say about Les Cayes and points farther along barely driveable roads but for now here's a news update on last week's developments via an analysis from the progressive Washington outfit [there are a few left] The Council on Hemispheric Affairs:

"On July 16, Haiti’s Council of Sages formally recommended barring former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Party from participating in upcoming elections, accusing the group of “continu[ing] to promote and tolerate violence.” Then, on July 22, Lavalas leader and likely presidential candidate, Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, was arrested on charges in connection with the death of prominent Haitian journalist Jacques Roche. It is important to note that a State Department official carefully articulated that his agency had seen no credible evidence establishing that pro-Aristide forces were responsible for Roche’s death. The priest’s arrest and the recommendation made by the seven-member advisory council, which was formed under the plenary direction of the U.S. following Aristide’s February 2004 ouster and was responsible for selecting interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, dealt fatal blows to any lingering hopes for delivering an open democracy in the near future to the long-struggling island. These events, along with stepped-up violence by Haitian police in complicity with the UN peacekeeping forces, have projected Latortue’s interim government as proving to be increasingly incapable of establishing the necessary stability, security and protection from political persecution on the island in order for free and fair elections to take place within a three month framework."

A Haitian activist friend calls the coup-appointed body which did the July 16 slamming of Lavalas 'The Council of Savages."

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