I just found some old film-camera photos from my first and only trip to Port-au-Prince. Here are scans of 5 of them;Â click through to see them larger.
These are from July 1995. I was 24 years old, and working in the foundation that Oscar Arias, Costa Ricaâ€™s former (and current) president, had founded with his 1987 Nobel Peace Prize money.Â Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president deposed by a 1991 coup, had been restored to power a year before. Oscar Arias was trying to convince Aristide to follow Costa Ricaâ€™s example and abolish the army that had kicked him out, and Aristide didnâ€™t require a lot of convincing.
For some reason, though I didnâ€™t (and still donâ€™t) speak French or Creole, I got to visit Haiti for a few days, accompanying the foundationâ€™s project director in Port-au-Prince.
Though by that time Iâ€™d spent a year in Central America, this was no preparation for Haiti. Countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (the latter two the #3 and #2 poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti) were destitute and just emerging from civil war. But Haiti was something else entirely.
The country had just been through 30 years of the bizarre dictatorship of FranÃ§ois â€œPapa Docâ€ Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, then 9 years of coups, with Aristideâ€™s brief tenure mixed in. You could tell from looking at Port-au-Prince that there had been a time – the 1950s or 1960s, perhaps? – when the city had a downtown, with buildings and storefronts. But no construction appeared to have gone on since then. Lots of crumbling concrete, missing windows, and abandoned shells. Nearly all the population living in shantytowns. In the biggest, CitÃ© Soleil, I saw mazes of shacks and children playing near huge piles of garbage where pigs and rats feasted.
Aristide had been restored, and a UN peacekeeping mission was there. I talked to some blue-helmeted U.S. troops, standing around by their armored personnel carrier in â€œdowntownâ€ Port-au-Prince. They had arrived recently and didnâ€™t hide their confusion about exactlyÂ whatÂ they were supposed to be doing.
We had a couple of meetings each day, but with poor telecommunications and incredible traffic on the few paved roads – I canâ€™t imagine how you can deliver relief supplies by road now – all you could do was drop in on two or three people and call it a day.
I saw people getting water from open drainage sewers, as depicted in the bottom of these five pictures. In this hot, crowded seaside city, this was the only source of fresh (that is, non-salty) water for much of the population. I saw people bathing in these sewers, naked in broad daylight in crowded neighborhoods.
I saw fresh water flowing in the fountains and swimming pools of the hotels in PetiÃ³nville, the suburb that sits atop a steep hill overlooking Port-au-Prince. This is where the countryâ€™s tiny economic elite lives, and the contrast is horribly stark.
I saw people everywhere, lining the streets, even in the middle of the streets. Look in windows and see more people looking out. Itâ€™s painful to imagine the buildings coming down around all of these people on Tuesday afternoon.
Since 1995, Haiti has been on and off – mostly off – the U.S. radar screen. There was a period of relative peace between 1994 and 2004, during which the Republican-majority U.S. Congress, which disdained Aristide and the U.S.-UN intervention to restore him, blocked most of the Clinton administrationâ€™s attempts to fund the countryâ€™s recovery.
During the early 2000s Aristide, serving his first uninterrupted term, grew more erratic and authoritarian, and he was knocked out of power by unrest. The Bush administration seemed happy with the outcome. Since then, there has been a big UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (whose headquarters disintegrated on Tuesday), with almost no U.S. troops. The country has been slammed by natural disasters, including floods in 2004 and 2008 that destroyed the city of GonaÃ¯ves.
But still, there was some optimism. President Rene Preval seemed to be running one of the least corrupt governments (relatively) in memory. The UN mission had broken gangsâ€™ domination of CitÃ© Soleil. The economy was growing. Cruise ships were returning for port visits. Chain hotels were considering building franchises.
And now this.
I donâ€™t have anything insightful to say about the earthquake itself, other than that itâ€™s shocking to have such a holocaust occur only a few hundred miles from Miami. As with the Indian Ocean tsunami a few years ago, itâ€™s all about logistics right now: rescuing people who can be rescued and getting emergency supplies to people who need it. You need all the helicopters you can get, and only the military can do that.
After that, what happens to the people who have survived, and who are now facing a long period of conditions even worse than what I saw in 1995? Nobody really knows.
This could be a turning point for Haiti, a moment when a badly divided, dysfunctional polity forges a social contract. Or, perhaps more likely, Haiti will somehow muddle through, with a generation enduring greater suffering as a result of Tuesday.Â Either way, the humanitarian emergency alone will require the United States and the â€œinternational communityâ€ to accompany Haiti far more closely, and with greater generosity, than they have. Probably for many years.