The other afternoon I had the good fortune to meet one more Haitian hero, outside the tent that has been his family’s home since the January 12 earthquake. Pierre France is a 35-year-old electrician who lives wedged with 4,000 other people in a tent encampment in the Place Boyer, up in the suburb of Petionville. There are only eight latrines for the entire camp population.
France, a calm, self-confident giant of a man, is a health volunteer, a task that takes on even more urgency as the cholera epidemic moves south and the death toll nears 2,000. The respected health organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders had been responsible for the camp’s sanitation.
Then, in early November, another, less efficient international organization took over. France explained: “With MSF, trucks had come to pump out the latrines every second day. But now sixteen days passed with no cleaning. The delivery of potable water also slowed down.”
Two frightened children appeared at France’s tent. Their family, seven in all, had started the explosive vomiting and diarrhea that is the sign of cholera. “I knew we had only four hours to get them to a hospital and save them,” France said. “We called an ambulance. It was busy far away. We called the police station. They said they were out of gas. Finally, we loaded the family into a tap-tap [the local transport] and raced to the hospital.” France and his friends carried the sick, suffering children without surgical gloves or other protection.
The entire family survived, and cholera has not yet gotten a foothold in the Place Boyer. But the episode illustrates the reality in Haiti nearly a year after the earthquake—a delayed and sometimes bumbling international and Haitian government response contrasts sharply with decisive, effective action by many Haitians, both here and in the 1-million-strong diaspora.
Meanwhile, Haiti is holding a presidential election. In the first round on November 28, voters were eager to punish the government, in part for its post-earthquake mismanagement. Jude Célestin, the unpopular president René Préval’s anointed successor, was stumbling badly, despite his lavishly funded campaign.
Célestin’s weakness, which was apparent to just about everyone here, may have prompted the Préval government to try to rig the election. Voting day started off calmly, but by early afternoon all the major opposition candidates joined to denounce what they called massive fraud and to demand a revote.
One leading challenger was Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor who appealed specially to women. Also gaining, drawing the biggest, most enthusiastic crowds, was a surprise: Michel Martelly, who, as “Sweet Micky,” has long been one of Haiti’s most popular singers.
The Martelly boom is oddly reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial victories in California: Voters disgusted by traditional politicians turn to an unlikely outsider. Martelly’s last-minute surge looked likely to propel him into a January 16 runoff, which is required if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
Even before voting day, Martelly supporters and others feared the government would try to steal the election for Célestin, who was an unknown engineer before Préval picked him. If Haitians continue to feel cheated, they have long experience in bravely taking their protest to the streets.
Here in Port-au-Prince, much of the earthquake rubble is being cleared away, and there is some rebuilding, particularly of schools. But the funding for reconstruction is not mainly coming from Western governments, or from Hollywood celebrity telethons.
All over Haiti, you see lines outside Western Union and other money-transfer agencies. Even before the earthquake, Haitians overseas sent home the astonishing figure of $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion a year—an amount the World Bank predicts will jump. Hard-working hospital workers in Brooklyn and Miami and taxi drivers in Montreal are rebuilding their homeland in several-hundred-dollar increments.
Meanwhile, only about 15 percent of the $5.3 billion the rest of the world pledged earlier this year has actually gotten here. The United States promised $1.15 billion, but has so far delivered only a small percentage of that. Emergency help from America and elsewhere was important right after the disaster, but once the television cameras left, the sense of urgency evaporated.
One and a half million Haitians still live in tents. They, and millions of others, have been remarkably restrained until now, maintaining their customary dignity under awful conditions that would have prompted widespread rioting in most other countries. But if this election is stolen, their legendary patience may be coming to an end.