To begin again


Sunday, January 17, 2010    

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GOD bless and protect the people of Haiti who have survived the overwhelming devastation of their country.

I have been riveted and horrified by the scenes unfolding in that country: no potable water, raw sewage running in streams on the roads, dying and malnourished children and babies; naked men peeing in the streets.

And all this before the horrific January 12 earthquake.

Already the poorest nation in this hemisphere, the genesis of Haiti's extreme poverty is France's 1825 demand that Haiti compensate them for the property that French planters had "lost" in the slave revolt - an amount which consumed around 80 per cent of the national budget for years to come.

After 1957, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier ruled with voodoo and violence.

Between 1971 and 1986, the Baby Doc Duvalier regime took for themselves US$540m of relief money given by international aid organisations to the Haitian public treasury. The 1990s IMF-imposed "structural adjustment" led to the liquidation of state assets and promoted little private investment.

While Haiti's skilled population migrated, 90 per cent of those remaining are illiterate. Degradation of the country's forests to produce charcoal — fuel for the poor — resulted in deadly floods caused by water which could not be absorbed by the bare hills. Four devastating hurricanes in a row have added to the burden of over 80 per cent of its population, which lives on less than US$2 per day.

It is no wonder then that Haiti's elite uses political power as the singular means to survive the mayhem that is Haiti. So I was curious about the woman — in what I could have sworn was a Chanel jacket — standing behind Haitian president René Préval while he gave an interview with CNN's Dr in the House host, Dr Sanjay Gupta. Préval and his group had come to the Toussaint L'ouverture International Airport at Portau-Prince, he said, to work from there because both his palace and his home had been destroyed by the earthquake.

Naturally, he was distraught. He had no home, no palace, no bed to sleep in and no capacity to do anything for the millions of displaced Haitians or to assist with the recovery of the bodies of the tens of thousands who he approximated to have died in the earthquake - the worst this region has seen in 100 years.

In the 50 hours since the quake, communication from Préval has, as expected, been limited. What we do know from him is that his country has collapsed: the parliament, the tax office, the schools and the hospitals have all been destroyed as a result of the poor building code standards. The lack of infrastructure is hampering search-and-rescue efforts and is preventing the removal of dead bodies which are piling on top of each other, literally, outside of the morgue and in the streets of the capital city. The sweet, sickly stench of death is rising, and so are tempers. There is little shelter, water and food, and limited medical emergency services: Préval appears for the moment to be powerless.

But back to that woman in the jacket. The appearance of a couture-dressed female in the midst of that chaotic scene seemed incongruous. But if it was indeed Haiti's first lady, then she has started her married life (they got married in December 2009) with impressive gusto. Her name is Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour, widow of Leslie Delatour — the former governor of the central bank of Haiti — and she is an economist who works with the Préval government.

Her voice was one of the first official voices we heard out of Haiti after the earthquake hit. Even before Préval was interviewed or heard on air, she was able to send a message to the world to say that most of Port-au-Prince was destroyed but that she and the president were fine.

While her fatigued husband stumbled in his interview with CNN's Gupta, the First Lady was beseeching first-time responders to bring all "types of good water, clothes, blankets, anything that would be needed for victims from the outset".

And later, when aid was being turned away at the airports because of congestion on the tarmac, she called for hospital-equipped ships to come to the Haitian shores and for dogs to sniff out the living and the dead from underneath the rubble. She has hit the ground running and we anticipate that she will join her husband and the legions of governments and volunteers and aid organisations at the front of this massive relief effort. Even if I'm wrong about the jacket, I sense that this unimaginable catastrophe will cast Madame Préval's role as Haiti's first lady in a new light.

And we hope she will continue to be a source of inspiration as the people of Haiti begin again. 




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