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

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