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Hobnobbing with the "Big Eaters"

posted by Nik Barry-Shaw Geography: Latin America Port-au-Prince Topics: haiti

May 22, 2007

Hobnobbing with the "Big Eaters"


* Note : The names of the guilty have been changed to protect the innocent *

On our first full day in Port-au-Prince, Aude and I hit the ground running. A Haitian friend in Montreal had arranged for us to meet with Madame Beauchamp, a Senator, to further a legislative project he'd been working for years. Our mission was simple enough: hand over a few documents and briefly discuss the project with the Senator.

We took a taptap, Haiti’s main form of mass transit, up the hill to Petionville, a weathly suburb of Port-au-Prince. After considering the luxurious Hotel Montana, Senator Beauchamp had decided on the Hotel Karibe as the meeting place. This should have been our first tip off.

We arrived at the red carpet entrance of the hotel sweating and smelling slightly of diesel fuel. When we asked the hotel staff where Senator Beauchamp was, we learned the Senator was attending a conference commemorating the “Journée Mondiale des Télécommunications et de la Société de l’Information” (World Day for Telecommunications and the Information Society). The air-conditioned conference hall was filled with exquisitely dressed men and women and the programme boasted high-level figures from both the public and private sectors of the telecommunications industry.

The orators at the podium spouted all the same tired “globalization” platitudes that we hear at home : “the increasing interconnectedness of the world”, the need to “integrate telecommunications technologies into the classroom”, “an increasingly competitive global labour market” etc., etc. The idea that schools in Haiti should teach kids how to use the internet, in a country where only about 10 percent of its 8.5 million people have access to limited electrical service and where a third of children don’t even receive primary education, summed up well the conference goers’ disconnect with reality. After two speakers we couldn’t take any more and decided to wait outside.

We reentered the room as the conference broke up for the lunch buffet. (Considering the rate at which the food disappeared, it’s no wonder ordinary Haitians refer to the political class as “gran manje”) Unfortunately, Senator Beauchamp had left early for her weekly radio show on Radio Vision 2000, a media outlet controlled by the Boulos family. I would later learn that our Senator is a member of the Fusion des Sociaux-Démocrates Haitiens (FUSION), one of the political parties that supported the February 29, 2004 coup d’état. Her friend Senator Charles offered to take documents for Senator Beauchamp. Madame Charles, for her part, ran with the 'Union pour Haïti' slate in the 2006 elections, an alliance between Marc Bazin’s Mouvement pour l’Instauration de la Démocratie en Haïti (MIDH) and the most opportunistic elements of Fanmi Lavalas who collaborated with the coup.

As we sat down to explain the project to the Senator, she enquired as to how we got to the hotel. We replied that we’d taken a tap-tap and her face went slack. Where were we staying? she asked. Down the hill in Delmas 19, we replied. Again, concern and astonishment. “We are in the process of reestablishing order in this country, but there are kidnappers in Haiti. Kidnappings happen in Delmas 19 too. You must be careful.” When we mentioned we might also travel to Jacmel by truck, she again objected, saying if we were to go we must have someone with a car drive us there.

It was pretty amazing for an unsolicited performance. Delmas 19 is not a rich neighborhood, but it is quite a calm and safe area. Yet the idea that we weren’t rolling around the city in an SUV like everyone else at the conference was scandalous to the Senator. Despite Port-au-Prince being the calmest it’s been in a long time, kidnapping and insecurity remain key political issues, most often used as excuses to “pacify” restive popular neighborhoods.

I’ve had my fill of Haiti’s political class. Time to go back down the mountain.

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