Letter From Haiti

Ten months after the earthquake, a nation of tent cities struggles against false hope and to separate reality from rumor.


From the first aerial views of Port-au-Prince and then past the chaotic welcome of Haiti's only international airport, there are the blue-and-gray tent cities. More often, rather than camp tents, the structures are flimsy wood frames standing 6 feet or so, wrapped with vinyl tarps, everywhere you go. These carry the stamps of USAID or the Canadian maple leaf, emblems of UNICEF or other United Nations organizations. Milling about the enclosed spaces of 30 to 50 square feet are children and adults -- washing, playing, transacting and erecting more structures.

The tarps were to have been handed out at no cost. But the fiercely efficient distribution system of the informal economy has priced them. And in stalls along crowded and muddy streets, tarps hang for sale, brand new and neatly folded, right next to shower curtains and vinyl tablecloths. Heading south out of the city, you cannot miss still more tarp-covered shelters clustered in the highway median, the same structures that have so moved Deborah Sontag of The New York Times.

There begins the unavoidable two-mile stretch to exit Port-au-Prince that takes nearly two hours to navigate in each direction. So dense is the traffic of cars, trucks, motorbikes and pedestrians in the narrow two-way lane that vehicles can only inch along. This is also true for the original Carrefour road, dangerously potholed, as are nearly all streets in the capital; in other towns the roads are rarely paved at all. Blue-gray clusters of shelters repeat occasionally along the route, interrupting the eventually soothing green scenery all the way to Miragoane, 50 miles away.

Heading north on the coastal road, Nationale #1, past the city dump, eight miles or so from downtown Port-au-Prince, one encounters planned tent cities in neat rows adorned with fluttering flags of international organizations. And on the surrounding hills opposite Source Puante, the sulfur-emitting marshes that delimit the metropolitan expanse from the beach-house region, more tents have sprouted on ad hoc lots, scattered in no particular pattern, as if breaking free from the tidy organization below.

The environment is dry and barren. There is no water or utilities of any sort. There are no schools or shops for miles around. Yet there exists the widespread belief that the clusters and shanties will soon be replaced by cinderblock buildings, that there will be a permanent improvement to the situation.

Temporary or Permanent?

The notion that international monies will rebuild the country and sustain it in years to come is a widely held opinion in Haiti. A companion dream is that enduring life in a tent city will somehow lead to a spanking new 600- to 900-square-foot home -- bathroom and kitchen included -- in a well-planned community. Dozens of architects from throughout the world have, in fact, visited the city. John McCaslan & Partners, a British architectural firm, has been retained to organize a design competition and housing "expo" slated for later this year. Countless American, Canadian, French, British and Dutch websites display renderings of ideal communities and homes priced at $5,000 to $25,000. The expectation is that the Haitian government will contract out a mammoth housing-development project with money it does not presently have but expects imminently.

One line of thinking is that the population under tarps and in shanties is impermanent. By this reasoning, thousands will return to the countryside. Meanwhile, rural regions that have been ignored for years as completely as the shanties are truly in need of assistance. Pretty much on their own, Haitian farmers continue to provide fresh vegetables and fruits for domestic consumption. There is even a little left over for export: $5 million in mangoes, less in coffee and cacao. But to suggest that an economic revolution will spring from an energized rural landscape is as cynical a ploy as the promise of new suburbs for the homeless in Léogane, Jacmel and Port-au-Prince.

U.N. and World Bank data document that well over 50 percent of the 10 million Haitians live within and adjacent to the country's six major urban agglomerations. The greater Port-au-Prince area is estimated to hold nearly 3 million people. The metropolitan areas of Cap Haitian, Gonaïves, Les Cayes, Jacmel and St. Marc are in the 250,000-to-1 million range. These 5 million-plus urbanites are firmly connected to the world via multilingual media and a global telecommunications system. Haiti's present critical mass -- the one likely to shape its political and social destiny -- is in the 2 million largely literate and young people who reside in the shanties and tarp cities of these agglomerations.

The argument regarding the country's urbanization could well have been settled 60 years ago when Making a Living in the Marbial Valley was published in 1951 (well known under its French title: L'homme et la terre dans la vallée de Marbial). The lead researcher, Alfred Metraux, was a widely respected anthropologist, born in Switzerland and raised in Argentina, who studied in Europe and, on occasion, lectured at Yale and other universities.