Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Haiti Diary

(Paw Paw Bill Note: Remember the Marshall Plan? You’re welcome, European Union and the Euro. But who needs gratitude? Americans lend a hand when a hand is needed. Wherever Americans go, America comes along. CARE relief worker Rick Perera’s reports from Haiti, particularly this one, capture the feel and paradox of American ducks out of American water and remind me of my own experiences 30 years ago in Cairo, Egypt, where I worked at the American Embassy.)

Guest Columnist

I don’t know what ranks above Heaven, but I’m there. Just when I thought I’d reached the stratosphere – slept a night in a real bed, with sheets – I got launched into Hubble territory: a trip to the supermarket. The Power Bars can bugger off back to REI: I’m rolling in Yoplait, Parmalat, Progresso soup, Ragu spaghetti sauce -- and cereal, glorious cereal.

It’s just a few blocks away, but these days, with kidnappers afoot, we’re not allowed to walk our lily-white derrières anywhere except in groups of five – holding hands in a daisy chain (OK, I made up the daisy chain, but not les cinq). So I went en voiture. With my trusty chauffeur Chélon waiting outside in the Land Cruiser, I could easily be mistaken for a member of the detestable Haitian landed gentry. The insulated, SUV-riding expat: great symbol of solidarity with the local population. But them’s the rules. As the security officers like to say, a dead aid worker is no use to anyone.

“Obama, we need change,” read the graffiti on the parking-lot wall (so do I, that reminded me – only a fifty on me. Not a problem here, where US cash is king). I strolled into Acra, a retrofitted villa stocked with dollar-store-quality wares that we’ll charitably call a department store, and indulged my inner homemaker. Soap, sponges, detergent, dishtowels. A Haitian girl totted up my bill, but only the Chinese owner handled the cash.

On to Big Star, the épicier of choice for the crème de la crème of Haitian society. Bag boys hovered, ready to roll a cart your way for a pourboire of few gourdes. The Lebanese owner watched hawklike from his raised dais over the lackluster cashiers and well-stocked aisles. You could count on one hand the number of locally-made products. I tried to buy Haitian: baby-food jars of dried oregano and basil with Xeroxed labels, skinny almonds and plump cashews, delightfully authentic baguettes. Of course the bananas, avocadoes and breadfruit – suffocated in cellophane, natch – were the real deal, too, though priced at least double what anyone with some haggling chops could score from the sidewalk fruit-and-veg ladies.

But otherwise, everything in sight was imported. La Vache Qui Rit cheese, Ritz crackers, lots of obscure private labels (Golden Foods, Best-Valu). Something called youngberry juice (Anyone? Anyone?) from South Africa. Oregon apples at a buck a pop. All the rice – Haiti’s staple crop – is American, for God’s sake (I’ll spare you the diatribe about “free trade” policies forced on Haiti; you can Wikipedia as well as I).. Even Arkansan eggs in the inevitable Styrofoam coffin (sans expiration date – no pesky U.S.D.A. regs over here). You could hear the giant sucking sound of precious foreign exchange flowing northwest.

On my first trip to this country, in 2004, I asked a hotel clerk, by way of conversation, about the major industries in Port-au-Prince. “People sell handicrafts by the side of the road,” she said, gesturing toward the rows of lively but low-quality acrylic naïfs and fabricated metal tchotchkes. She wasn’t kidding. They make effectively nothing here. There’s reportedly a tiny textiles industry that, umm, hangs by a thread off a tariff-free arrangement with Washington (ever see a “Made in Haiti” label? Me neither). That’s it, in terms of exports. Everything else comes from foreign aid and remissions from the Haitian diaspora, who wire many millions to relatives back home. (There is a Western Union on every block, and I doubt they do much outgoing business).

All of this gives one pause as one trains one’s USB video cam on a distribution site where stars-and-stripes-emblazoned, 25-kilo bags of rice are plopped onto sweat-streaming heads. What choice do we have? Some other economic geniuses will have to figure out how to heal Haiti over the longer term (anyone out of work on Wall Street?). Meantime, no one is going to starve. Least of all your cooped-up but coddled correspondent.

Copyright 2010 by Rick Perera and used with his permission.

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