Haiti: the graveyard of hope

Despite all the pledges of help, the island is still in crisis three years after the earthquake. Peter Popham reports from Port-Au-Prince

Three years and one day ago, on 12 January 2010, the actor Sean Penn got home after a four-night drunken bender and turned on the TV, "and there was this earthquake in Haiti".

"I saw they were doing trauma surgeries, amputations – children, with no IV pain medications," he told Esquire magazine. "Now, my joke has always been that an actor in Hollywood knows where to find narcotics – but not bulk narcotics. And they needed about 350,000 vials of morphine and ketamine. So I started putting a little ragtag team together… and that's what got us there."

He visits frequently, and the relief mission he impulsively co-founded three years ago, J/P Haitian Relief Organisation, is still hard at work. Its website says: "JP/HRO is working tirelessly to help 20,000 Haitians find their way home."

But for this reporter at least, the journey is taking an unconscionable length of time. Penn's organisation runs a camp for people displaced by the earthquake in Pétionville, a posh suburb above Port-au-Prince. But the camp, which swallowed the local golf course, looks as if it was established not three years ago but last week. Huts four feet high roofed with corrugated iron and beige tarpaulins marked "US Aid" are crammed cheek by jowl over the stony, rolling contours. Drying clothes are draped on the tarpaulins. Children mill about. Tiny shack-shops sell dry groceries.

Outside the shack they call home, Marie France Sanon and Ilfrard Héribert watch us journalists go past. We've been told not to trouble residents with questions, which seems an order worth ignoring. "We've been here nearly three years now," Marie France tells me. "J/P HRO has done nothing for us." Ilfrard says he makes $3 a day handing in empty bottles he collects. "With that we can't afford to buy food, we can't pay for electricity, nothing. This is not living."

The earthquake that killed 220,000 Haitians is a receding memory but everything about this camp screams "emergency". I cannot contain my indignation. "How long are these people going to stay here?" I ask the woman from J/P HRO who is showing us around. "When are they going to be given permanent homes?"

"Send me those questions by e-mail and I'll let you know," she replies.

In fact Penn's NGO has done good work. After the disaster, 60,000 people were crammed into this and an adjoining camp; that number has reduced to less than 15,000. Most have moved away under their own steam, though 1,000 penniless families have been given financial help with new homes. Compared to other camps, this is at least decently run, with some provision for health, sanitation, schooling and other basic services.

But Haiti is the graveyard of easy hopes, and the fact that this camp is a showcase, gives an idea of the scale of the nation's abiding problems: more than 350,000 people are still living in camps. Call it the perverse consequences of compassion. Sean Penn was only one of many who were shocked and horrified into action by the earthquake that demolished Haiti's presidential palace and made more than a million people in the western hemisphere's poorest nation homeless. That great spasm of concern, which brought pledges of more than $5bn, saved thousands of lives. But by underscoring Haiti's inability to care for itself, it pushed resolution of the country's intractable problems far into the future.

These problems are visible as soon as you land in Port-au-Prince, with the airport still under construction and the squatter colonies, that are now in occupation of much of the capital proper, accelerating the flight of wealthier Haitians up into the hills.

The streets of the capital, where grand old houses have been abandoned, are alive with the micro retail efforts of the city's poor: the 2 cent "borlette" lottery shops with names like TitiLoto, with the winning numbers chalked up outside, the improvised markets with vegetables or underwear or toiletries – but nowhere any sense of a larger plan, no sense of Haiti's crisis being taken in hand.

The UN put in its "stabilisation mission", known by its French acronym Minustah, in 2004, after the coup d'etat that sent President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile. Today there are still nearly 10,000 "peace-keepers" and police here, at a cost of over $670m this financial year, even though the violence has plummeted. When on 28 December the US State Department issued a Haiti advisory warning that "US citizens have been victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping…", Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe shot back angrily: "Haiti is one of the safest destinations in all of Latin America." And he was right.

Minustah is working at creating a clean, professional police force to replace the former corrupt and discredited body, and the head of mission, Mariano Fernandez from Chile, stresses that Minustah is halfway out the door. "There have been two reductions of manpower since I've been here and we will continue reducing our numbers next year," he says. "This is a country that lives in a very precarious condition – another big earthquake would produce the same results as the last one. We say to Haiti – we want to leave – help us to leave! We need authority in the right sense to take over the functions that we are doing."

He adds: "Minustah provides 1,500 direct jobs for Haitians – and our 10,000 troops are consumers. If you go close to the population, you will find that Minustah is popular."

The last point is highly debatable: many ordinary Haitians see it as yet another army of occupation. Everywhere foreign NGOs and volunteers are doing their bit – but in the long run the foreigners are part of the problem, postponing the day when Haiti takes charge of its future. And when the contamination of water supplies with the cholera virus by Nepalese UN peacekeepers led to the deaths of more than 7,000 Haitians – the UN has refused to take the blame – "uneasiness" is an understatement. Violent rage would be a better term.

Hope springs eternal. Today Haiti has a new, popular president, Michel Martelly, formerly the country's hottest pop singer. Though famous for dropping his pants during his wild gigs, in his inauguration speech he hit the right, responsible notes. "We are going to change Haiti," he declared. "We are going to re-make this country. We cannot continue with this humiliation of having to extend our hand for help all the time."

"Sweet Micky" (as he is known) has a Minister for Tourism, Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, who looks a lot like the former super-model Cindy Crawford. "We have an amazing product," she told us, "we are in the middle of the Caribbean…" She reels off a list of new projects – $150m invested in new hotels, $40m for the historic southern town of Jacmel, a new international airport in the north, where there is also a newly opened industrial zone.

Haiti also has a new slogan: "The Soul of the Caribbean." Yet, as she confesses, "the image is so bad, it's hard to change it". Just outside the conference room where she is talking to us, heavy machines are smashing apart and hauling away the final remnants of the presidential palace.

It's a formidable job, removing the wreckage of a disaster as big as the one that struck Haiti three years ago. But removing the toxic clutter of decades of bad governance and foreign interference will be even tougher.

Haiti timeline

2010

January: A magnitude 7 earthquake hits Port-au-Prince, killing up to 300,000 people.

March: Donors pledge $5.3bn.

December: Cholera outbreak claims 3,500 lives.

2011

May: Michel Martelly takes up office as President.

2012

February: Cholera deaths at 7,000.

October: Protests on the streets

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape