Out of tents, into houses

Today was our first day of actually getting to meet and interview people and start gathering the base for our documentary.  Our first stop was at the over-air conditioned, gorgeously-constructed American embassy in Port-au-Prince, where we spoke with Pierre Antoine Louis, the head political officer, Emily Godfrey with American Citizen Services and Regine Rene with Bureau of Public Affairs.   They gave us a security briefing and an overview of the State Department’s assessments of the dangers facing Americans in Haiti and through answering our questions, a general idea of the official American stance on the situation in Haiti and the elections. Some of the main things I took away were that they see no reason why the election wouldn’t be carried out as planned, that a main obstacle is that the better educated middle class will be underrepresented in the polls because of fears over violence and cholera and simply not having time to take off work to stand in line for hours, and that there are lots of things that American Foreign Service officers are “not authorized to comment on.”

After that we drove up through the hills into Petionville to talk with JP Bak and his wife, Ula, who are the founders of the Dania Foundation, an NGO that works on the postearthquake rebuilding effort mainly through providing mortgages to middle class Haitians who could not otherwise afford to rebuild their houses.  They are also building their houses according to a new construction material that is lighter and better able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes than concrete and working to establish an engineering school in Port-au-Price.

After speaking with JP and Ula we interviewed Smoye Noisy, a well-known Haitian movie actor and host of the TV show “Avant Voter” (meaning “before voting”) on which he has interviewed each of the 19 presidential candidates.  Some of the things he mentioned to us were: how the Haitian election process is so different from it is in the West because the candidates don’t have to present a political strategy or ideology as the voting is more often based on charisma and familiarity than anything else, how the mulatto elite, as the main funding source for the candidates, have huge political sway that it is hard to avoid, and regarding foreign aid to Haiti that it is “much easier to prevent than to heal”  That was a recurring theme that it is important to remember in any development work: when treating the symptoms don’t lose sight of the big picture need to treat the disease.

By Leslie Bull (leslie.bull@yale.edu)

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