Haiti’s Palace

A friend of mine asks the question: Seriously, why is the Prime Minister of Haiti’s Palace so big? Technically it’s the President’s palace but I won’t quibble.

Seems an innocuous enough question but on second blush, it really isn’t. Why, in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is there such a massive and imposing structure surrounded by dire living conditions? So I turned to Google and lo and behold there was already at least one article on the meaning of the Haitian Palace:

By Lee Hockstader

Among the appalling, heart-breaking images of ruin and carnage emerging today from the earthquake in Haiti, few will be as shocking to Haitians as the partially collapsed presidential palace.

Standing in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince, the palace is a vast, gleaming, white confection, an otherworldly symbol of power in a country where power is regarded with awe, reverence, envy and fear. In Haiti, whose political stability is always iffy, the risk is that the broken palace will be equated with the breakdown of any semblance of order.

That is a dangerous thing in a country where years of political upheaval and spasms of violence have only recently given way to a period of relative stability. If Haiti is to respond effectively to what may be its most devastating humanitarian disaster ever, it will need not only urgent and substantial international assistance but also a government that can operate the levers of public administration.

Built during the U.S. Marine occupation of Haiti in the 1920s, the presidential palace seems almost a mirage in a city of mean, sprawling slums, rickety tin shacks and jury-rigged infrastructure. Its public rooms are pristine, its sprawling grounds immaculate, and beyond its wrought-iron gates are broad boulevards flanked by the national police headquarters and other instruments of government power and prestige.

As a reporter covering Haiti 20 years ago, I saw the crowds descend on the palace gates again and again — furious, dangerous mobs in periods of chaos; joyous, dancing throngs to celebrate the rare democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the now-discredited populist priest-turned-politician. Through the Duvalier dictatorship and the years of turmoil that followed, the palace was the focal point of intrigue, speculation, anxiety — and also, intermittently, of hope.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will be more immediate worries than the palace: how to rescue, feed, shelter and care for the survivors of this cataclysm, which has deepened the misery of the hemisphere’s most blighted country. Also, how to pay for all that. Here’s hoping that amid the coming trials, the Haitian government of Rene Preval and its international backers are able to keep order and project a sense of guidance without the building that has been an icon for authority for so long.

var entrycat = ‘Hockstader’ By Lee Hockstader | January 13, 2010; 11:53 AM ET

The first thing that jumped out at me is that the Palace had been built in 1920, during the U.S. occupation of the country. (Yes, the U.S. occupied Haiti at one point. Uh-huh.) I knew that the U.S. had been an occupying force but somehow the building of the palace during that time was provoking. After a 19 year occupation (1915 – 1934), why is the most visible symbol a grandiose structure in the midst of poverty and suffering? Why not some bureaucratic framework? A financial foundation that did not mean sending money abroad to U.S.-owned companies? Instead there’s the Royal Palace, the foundation for more hostilities with the neighbouring Dominican Republic (over disputed border land that contained water), which led to more dead Haitians (and Dominicans I imagine), and more desertion and desolation as the nation tried to get moving again.

And of course, Haiti still had to suffer through Antihaitionisimo, much political apathy and fatigue…and the Duvaliers. O Lord, the Duvaliers. Haiti still suffers from that political apathy, I think, and it is its most dangerous problem because it allows the governing structure to get away with accountability and deprives the population of true leadership. And now an earthquake has robbed Haiti of its physical structures and added to the socioeconomic, political, and psychological burdens it already shoulders. (Note: as I was typing this the following news came to light – Haiti earthquake: ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier pledges £5m aid @ http://bit.ly/8nArDV)

(I also don’t think Haiti is alone in suffering from this disease – Jamaica suffers from it too so I hope Jamaicans home and abroad are paying attention to where Haiti was before January 12, where it is now, and what happens to move forward.)

But now, as Haiti has to pull itself from underneath another mass of rubble, the most visible building in its midst has crumbled along with everything else. The above article seems to identify the palace as a symbol of authority. The writer of the article noted that s/he had seen the palace be a place for demonstration when sentiments were raw and volatile, and as a place of celebration when the good things happened. It was also a curious place when various dictators ruled Haiti & retreated there – what did they do in there except store a fabulous wardrobe of clothes and shoes?

Its crumble in the earthquake – and presumably being one of the more stable & well built structures in Haiti – may also signal significant damage to the country’s fragile power structure. Has Haiti’s struggling leadership and authority also crumbled? To a certain extent it has. The actual buildings of government and its records are gone, reduced to dust or simply buried. As well-intentioned relief aid arrives but stalls at the airport and while bodies that cannot be moved quickly enough to mass graves and no-empty crypts fester and rot on the streets under intense heat and humidity, frustrations are boiling over in the form of angry pleas and gangs. President Rene Preval seems in a state of shock and some of his cabinet are dead, the government machinery is still…communication within and out of Haiti is spotty so he can’t get word to his population that aid is on the way…especially since the affected see oodles of news crews and journalists moving around freely. Stories are getting out but what really needs to get in isn’t.

Haiti’s fragile leadership stands on shaky ground, as apparently the actual capital city does. No base of operations has been established for an interim government to function either to start getting regular messages out to the Haitian population or to better coordinate with aid agencies and other governments. And all of this in the face of a mass mobilization of resources. These wheels are grinding slowly and are exceedingly unsure indeed.

To my mind, for the Palace to sit in the midst of such obvious suffering was vulgar. I hope that after the immediate needs of people are addressed, those in charge take a long hard look at the Palace and soak up its grandeur…and demise.

mood: anxious, annoyed, red raging anger
sounds: the playoffs (Indy (go Pierre Garçon – for Haiti!!) v. Ravens)

3 Responses to “Haiti’s Palace”
  1. Thinkbass says:

    I feel sorry for Haiti – but I always will look on that country with puzzlement – much as I do my Jamaica. First independent Caribbean nation, many thought they would be the template by which others would follow. But corruption at the hands of their own has been a steady feature in their lives. The world media loves showing the poorest and worst of Haiti and so very few ppl will even venture there. I worry for their young – what will they inherit? Tolerance of a structure as immense as their Palace for so long though, shows that the ppl suffer from Battered 'Wife' Syndrome. They are in love with being treated badly and seem to keep admitting leaders into their lives that mean them no good.I wish that with all the international aid coming it – that the C'bbean leaders will suggest to them a good framework for social development. If they accept and are careful – they could become a strong nation. Can black ppl not achieve great things?

  2. AliceClare says:

    Thanks for your comment, and my apologies for taking so long to reply.I don't feel sorry for Haiti at all but that doesn't mean I don't feel badly for what they have and are going through. Instead I feel angry, determined, and a sense of resolve. The Caribbean cannot continue to take such a lax approach to its development and relations. We are not incapable of doing much better in terms of economic development & diversification, crime management and the administration of justice and preservation of law and order. Cannot continue to happily skip down our current path.Food for thought: A friend who is Haitian suggested to me that the "impoverished" story of Haiti is one that is intentionally perpetuated by "developed" countries as an example for (1) other majority black countries and (2) for the large black populations within many developed countries – i.e. look at the first black republic and their failures so what makes you think your struggles will result in any better result. In other words, fall in line and stay there. This theory resonated with me especially since I have witnessed the ignorance bubbling up after 1/12, but ESPECIALLY among Jamaicans and black Americans. Ignorance is not bliss.Haiti's history is one that we should all learn and learn well.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] what I thought the Caribbean response should be (or should have been) and on what I thought the large presidential palace meant to and for Haiti.  I thought that the EQ was really the worst that […]

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