PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The broad avenues in the Haitian government’s promotional material are clean and unbroken, dotted with palm trees, parks and manicured expanses of grass. The new ministry buildings are sleek and modern but retain some of the neo-classical architecture of the former structures lost to natural disaster.
This is the grand, dreamlike vision of central Port-au-Prince that President Michel Martelly says will replace what was toppled when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake left much of Haiti’s capital in ruins on Jan. 12, 2010. Sketched plans look more like a wealthy Miami suburb than the gritty downtown of old that housed both state institutions and shabby tenements.
“These plans will take a long time to finish, perhaps another 10 years,” says Harry Adam, executive director of the government agency that is responsible for the construction of public buildings and housing. “But I think it’s realistic. We can do it.”
Demolitions began in June for construction of an “administrative city” covering 30 hectares (75 acres) downtown.
But the plan hailed as a sign of post-quake rebirth by some residents has also set off a firestorm of criticism for creating a new wave of homelessness after many poor renters were given just minutes to vacate their dwellings before bulldozers arrived.
While there are no available figures on the number of people left homeless by the demolitions, the city center has become dotted with new encampments of tarp shacks in recent weeks. Hills of rubble left by bulldozers have grown so large it almost looks like a fresh quake just hit.
Bitter quake survivors, some who only recently were moved by aid groups from squalid tent camps to downtown apartments, are back to living beneath tarps or staying with friends.
One of them is Jean-Louis Wilner, a 32-year-old father of a two-year-old boy. After a couple of years living in a tent camp, he thought he had finally made it. He had a subsidized rental apartment for a year and a small business selling cold drinks. Now Wilner wonders if he’ll make it through the hurricane season. Like others, he claims his possessions were either lost beneath rubble or stolen by thieves when he rushed items out into the street.
“This country doesn’t respect human beings. I’m worse off than after the earthquake. It’s humiliating,” Wilner says.
Opposition politicians say they plan to mobilize the newly displaced families in street protests against Martelly’s government.
“They only give them a warning of a few minutes and then they start bulldozing? I consider that a crime. These families have nowhere to go and are now homeless again,” said Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, a staunch opponent of Martelly.
Government officials say communication about the demolitions could have been better and contend that some building owners who were notified did not tell their tenants of the coming bulldozers.
Public notary Jean-Henry Ceant, who is helping people with their claims, says owners of buildings with proof of their investments are being quickly compensated. But that’s a tall order in Haiti, where the land registry is in shambles and it’s not always clear who owns what.
Renters are also being compensated, but only the few who can prove they lived in their now-demolished homes for about a decade and paid their utility bills, the head of the agency overseeing the project said.
“If you can bring proof with receipts that you paid the electricity, you paid the water — if you bring that and you have them for like 15, 10 years — then we’ll consider that we’re going to pay you,” Adam said in English.
For now, it’s hard to see the promised shiny, orderly city center arising amid the cracked streets, where steel reinforcing bars twist out of the rubble and are a prized commodity for scavengers. The hope is to consolidate all the government ministries on elegant boulevards and revive a business district that was already dying before the quake.
Evidence of the reconstruction is evident in the skeleton frames of a few new ministry buildings. Most of the work has been funded so far through debt relief money and Venezuela’s Petrocaribe fuel program. Authorities declined to provide a total estimate, but the first phase of construction is expected to cost $150 million.
Richard Morse, manager of the storied Hotel Oloffson, which Graham Greene immortalized in his novel “The Comedians,” asserts the government’s vision of a new capital city is dishonest. The hotelier is a first cousin to Martelly and worked as his special envoy to Washington before quitting early last year over what he says is “outright corruption” in the government.
“They’re just trying to pour as much cement as possible in order to get as many kickbacks as possible. They’re not really fixing anything,” Morse said at the three-story gingerbread hotel not far from the razed blocks.
Adam, the government official, insists the ambitious rebuilding program will transform downtown Port-au-Prince if the country has success drumming up the money year after year.
“We have to rebuild better,” he said. “But it will cost a lot.”
For some Port-au-Prince residents, the message of renewal is powerful.
“I would love for my city to have a different image. I want a Port-au-Prince like New York, Miami, Canada,” off-duty policeman Evens Simon said as he gazed up at construction workers on scaffolding.