Haiti's elite offers an unlikely source of hope

Homegrown efforts lead way in the race to help earthquake victims

Guy Adams
Saturday 23 January 2010 01:00

Standing on Ralph Chevry's magnificent veranda, gazing over a sun-dappled Caribbean and listening to the delicate tinkle of a swimming pool being filled in the nearby courtyard, it's easy to forget where you are. Yesterday, a 69-year-old woman was pulled alive from Haiti's rubble, 10 days after the earthquake. Such dramas seem a million miles from this affluent scene.

Mr Chevry is one of Haiti's best-known entrepreneurs. His business interests include a waste-disposal company He lives in Montaigne Noir, a beautiful, moneyed neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, and holidays in New York, Miami, and Paris. His daughter attends university in Strasbourg.

Disaster is supposed to be a great leveller, but although Haiti has lost several of its most influential personalities, including its Catholic archbishop, the Chevrys and their peers have endured only a fraction of the discomforts of their fellow countrymen. The family's large, well-built house was undamaged by the quake. It never lost its electricity supply thanks to a generator, and internet access continued virtually uninterrupted, via satellite.

"Some of our businesses were hit badly, and of course they haven't been trading since the quake, but our home thankfully escaped," he says. "The hills up here, above the city, were built on solid rock. That's one of the reasons we chose to live on them."

Similar mansions litter the verdant surrounding hillside, where wealthy importers, car dealers and the man who once controlled the lottery rub shoulders with people with surnames like Madsen, Mev and Brett, who are among the 20 or 30 families who make up Haiti's aristocracy. They enjoy the sort of gilded lifestyles you might normally expect to find in Beverly Hills, or the South of France.

To an outsider, the existence of this ghetto of prosperity in suburban Port-au-Prince may come as a shock, since Haiti is constantly portrayed as a wealth-free zone. In recent days, report after report has portrayed it as an economic basket case, with a comically ineffective government. Most foreign media would have you believe that the country will forever be dependent on foreign aid.

But Mr Chevry and his affluent neighbours beg to differ. They say they are living proof that, behind the stereotypes, Haiti is brimming with potential. The nation's small but determined elite will be central to its reconstruction.

"Haiti actually has four elites," says Mr Chevry. "There is the intellectual elite, what I would call the old Haitian elite of powerful families who have money and education, a political elite, and then a business elite. Together, they are at the top of the 5 per cent of the population who control, I would say, at least 80 per cent of the wealth."

But Mr Chevry is no idle, bloated plutocrat. Indeed, in the first, crucial first days after the quake, he and his fellow members of the local business community were responsible for delivering the most important early tranches of aid to Port-au-Prince's hundreds of thousands of homeless and injured residents.

Foreign governments fiddled and bickered, international aid agencies were stranded overseas, and the UN struggled to come to terms with the destruction of its local operation and the death of many of its staff – but meanwhile Mr Chevry's water trucks were making vital deliveries to the earthquake's thirsty survivors. When Haiti's President all but disappeared, and thousands of lives were sacrificed to institutional incompetence, it was his firm's garbage trucks that began clearing sewage-ridden rubbish and decomposing corpses from the streets.

In recent days, Mr Chevry has fed and watered several hundred locals, and helped organise them into community groups who, when aid eventually begins to arrive in serious quantities, will make sure it is distributed to the places where it is most needed. He offered lodging to correspondents covering the disaster, including The Independent's.

Like that of many businessmen, the quake killed Mr Chevry's immediate income stone dead. It also took the lives of several of his close friends and extended family members. But in its aftermath, he is adamant that if Haiti is to escape decades of chaos and poverty, the country must create wealth, not just accept international handouts.

"Too much aid just keeps people dependent," he says. "This country receives tens of millions of dollars each year. But every time I go to the ghettos I don't see where it is spent. The way things have been run in the past simply doesn't work. If we want to change the cycle of failure, we have to develop industries like agriculture, tourism, manufacturing."

Haiti was once the world's third-biggest coffee producer. It boasts stunning beaches, and unexploited reserves of oil. Indeed, Mr Chevry notes that Hugo Chavez, who has criticised America's "invasion" of the country, recently signed a contract to build four new refineries there, though the current state of the project is now unclear.

Haiti's elite also believes the work of foreign aid organisations must be replaced, or at least supplemented, by Haitian-run groups, who will not squander their income on "operating costs". Mr Chevry's wife, Fedora, runs the Fondation Roussan Camille, a charity that helps send children from Port-au-Prince's slums, such as the notorious Cité Soleil, to school and university.

While the rest of the world was vilifying Haiti, the country's elite was working hard to plug the gap. Last week, Elias Abraham, the owner of a supermarket that had just been looted, told The Wall Street Journal: "They took everything. I don't care. God bless them. If they need the food, take it."

The Fondation Roussan Camille can be contacted at fondationrc@yahoo.fr

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