Friday, March 17, 2006


I am nauseous. I have been nauseous all day. I've also been riding around in the car on smoggy streets for the last 2 hours. I am not a happy camper. That is all.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

La Gloire de la Loi

Today, we visited the government, in all its glory and construction.

The Primature sits up on top of a hill in Petionville, with landscaped grounds and a fountain (albeit dry). The building was built by a former police commissioner, M. Prospere, in the 1930s. It's a grandiose blend of Italian villa and American plantation. Inside, you can see some evidence of wear and tear - the chandeliers are missing some of their crystals, not all of the lights turn on. Regardless, the impression is one of opulence (friezes on the walls, statues from Italy, the aforementioned chandeliers). After meeting for about half an hour, we left to go down and visit the Parliament.

We wound our way down the hill (you can look up the hills around Port-au-Prince and watch the wealth gap widen) into the downtown, through the Haitian equivalent of the automile on the wrong side of the tracks, past tiny shops dealing only in secondhand sheet metal and pay-by-the-pound clothes shipped over from the US, staring longingly at the snow-cone carts (we antibacterial Americans affectionately refer to them as "cones of death") roaming up and down the ruts in the street. All the while, it was a tumult of people dodging traffic, traffic dodging dogs, and dogs failing to dodge traffic. We wormed our way over the potholes (cauldron-holes, maybe) and through to the other side, where we finally arrived at Parliament.

On first glance, you could miss it entirely. There is a "Palais Legislatif" that sits facing the American Embassy (ironic, that, for you IRI members reading this), the showpiece of the legislature. Around the back of the block, and across the street is the Senate office building. It's wedged between the Cuban Embassy and a copy shop, and has been gutted for renovations. We walked inside (not a place I should have worn open-toed shoes, but...), and up the stairs, ducking to go through doorways, and sliding over debris. The government of Haiti is valiantly trying to refurbish the building before the parliament sits (probably in late May), but they have a herculean task ahead of them. The Augean Stables have nothing on the Haitian Senate.

The interesting thing? There is really no office space for the legislators. If you're appointed one of the leadership positions, you get an office. Think about it this way - imagine Capitol Hill if it was plonked down in the middle of Southeast DC, and only Dick Cheney and Harry Reid had offices there. They've rented out an old apartment building, and there's only one bathroom. Would you want to go visit your congress? All the other legislators have offices in their districts, but not in the capital. There's only one conference room, and the library is about the size of an elementary school classroom, with an archive off to the back. There is no money for computers, let alone a network. There's one broken microfilm machine. All of the senators will share a pool of adminstrative staff and researchers, who will all sit in three rooms, along with the accountants.

It makes me take a hard look, both at our goals for this project, and at the resources we spend on our government at home. We have invested so much over the years in the resources available to Congress that we have, perhaps, forgotten how to ask our legislators to get their hands dirty (and I don't mean in an Abramoff kind of way). On the other end of the spectrum, the Haitian legislature will sit for the first time in years, and will have a huge mandate with no resources. Instead, they'll have to answer to the people, and to the voices from the mansion up on the hill, and try their damnedest to make a change.

In the day you can see the children playing
On the road that leads to those gates of hardened steel
Steel gates that completely surround sir
The mansion on the hill
- Bruce Springsteen

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Hunka Hunka Burnin' Trash

Yesterday, I finally saw the Haiti that people think I'm seeing. It's hard to say, "Ah, yes, it's so hard to be here, I had to meet with so many members of parliament. Woe is me!" without feeling at least a little bit hypocritical. I didn't want to hop around the world just to meet the luminaries, and usually I don't. This trip is a bit different.

We've been meeting with people, mainly in our hotel, or in their offices in Petionville (the richest town in Haiti), because the overwhelming majority of political players live here. It's interesting, though, when we talk to people who are running for office from another area, the difference in their perception of the issues. The people in Petionville? They say corruption is a problem, and that there needs to be a better enabling environment. The people from the city? They say food. Without enough food, we can't do anything. Their children only get one meal a day, and it's hard to see the big picture when you're hungry. As someone said yesterday, "We have to fix this from the ground up. Reaganomics won't work here, because the wealth doesn't trickle down, it trickles out."

We went down to the USAID/Embassy complex yesterday to meet with the requisite functionaries; all fine, but it definitely gave us a chance to see the city. The one thing I can say for the Embassy, they actually put themselves downtown, not up in the hills where it's all pretty and green. After an hour in the car, stuck in traffic - that would be over an hour to go literally 10 miles - we got out, went to our 20 minute meeting, and got back in the car. The streets downtown are so narrow that the cars (when two can fit on the street) careen around each other like bumper cars with no bumpers. We wound our way through the narrow streets, hanging on for dear life, past burning piles of trash by the side of the road. I'd never seen a smoldering pile of garbage before, actually. You don't get that so much in the Middle East.

Interestingly, Wyclef Jean has an NGO called Yele Haiti that employs people to pick up trash. Simple, but effective, when the gov't can't do it by itself. And now, it's time for dinner. A bientot!

Monday, March 13, 2006

"Everyone, Sit Down!"

It's amazing how, by just sitting in meetings all day, you can become exhausted. My first official meeting (i.e., not our DAI staff) of the day was conducted entirely in French... Quebecois-ish French, no less. About mechanisms to strengthen the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the Haitian government. I think I really need to take a class full of political vocabulary and colloquial construction, but after that meeting, I realized that I was starting to think pieces in French. Going over my notes tonight, I had mixed up pieces of French into the English when I couldn't switch out fast enough to think of the right word. I wasn't expecting to act as translator today, but it worked out alright - better than I expected.

Meanwhile, today's description of Haiti. I woke up early - 7am - and looked out the window, where the sky was fading to a deep blue, and little clouds scudded across the tops of the mountains. If I held my breath, ignored the gashes on the hillside, and the walls surrounding our hotel, I could imagine this place as paradise.

That's the catch, though. We're here, in a hotel that's nothing short of luxurious (although you still can't drink the water), but flying in over Cite Soleil, you see the "real" Haiti. The corrugated tin shacks, barely four walls and a roof, clustered in a surprisingly ordered maze of dirt tracks around the edge of the land, as if the city, the country, is trying to use geography to advantage and eventually just let it slip over the edge and into the shallows. As you fly lower, you can see the gullies that, this time of year, are dry and filled with garbage, the streets that have no cars (their inhabitants can't afford them, can't get out), the roofs filled with holes, the streets devoid of electric and telephone poles. As a foreigner, you don't just fly over Cite Soleil, you fly right past it, and keep on going.

Around the rest of the city (at which we drive at breakneck speed, dodging potholes, sink holes, and the fleet of crazy drivers), there is infrastructure. Broken down, worn out, hastily repaired, but visible. I sat at dinner last night, ensconced in a little restaurant with a roof made of vines, with an ex-senator and his chief of staff (our guide). Our conversation, although it started with Haiti, moved on to the entire world. As I chewed my cabri (yes, goat - kind of chewy, but good - like lamb mixed with venison), we ranged from the Kyoto protocols to the shrimping industry, piracy, Iran's nuclear capacity, and West African folk music.

I didn't want to break the mood, the little corner of magic, and turn us back to reality, but through dinner the words of the man next to me on the plane were haunting me. I had told him that we were coming to learn about the government, and to do a project to strengthen the parliament. He said, "Haiti is like an airplane with no seats. Everyone is on board, waiting to take off, but then the pilot says, 'Everyone, sit down! We cannot take off until you sit down!' and they all try, but where will they go? That's what we need - we need the government to build us some seats so we can take off."

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ayiti Encore

Salut, tous -
Je suis arrivee! Interestingly enough, coming here a second time doesn't seem nearly as bad as the first. Maybe I've just become conditioned to being in desolate places, but what was shocking before seems mundane this time around.

Our drivers mixed up the time at the airport, so we had to negotiate for a taxi (managed to find people with uniforms, name tags, and a labelled cab for those of you who worry at this) - two years ago, that would have been incredibly scary. This time? I figured I'd try my hand at bargaining, managed to get a decent price, and had a nice chat with the driver (in French) on our way up the hill. I probably could've gotten something cheaper, but I'd rather take the above-board company than one of the unmarked 1995 Landrovers.

So we've made it to the hotel - I'm a bit exhausted, having woken up at 4 this morning, but I'll manage through the meeting I have in 10 minutes, have some dinner and watch Gray's Anatomy. That's right, folks - I'm finally in a country where the time zone and the TV channels are the same. Yikes, it's all a bit too luxurious for my taste!

Anyway, stay tuned - I'll be posting regularly this week, most likely to complain about the food...
Ooop! Power just went out. Something to get used to again.

A bientot...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Return to the Caribbean

Hello, everyone - back from my long traveling hiatus (I decided that lying on a beach in Mexico didn't really constitute blog-worthy travel) - I'll be headed to Haiti again during the second week of March.

This time, it'll be a whirlwind trip, but it should be interesting. We'll be doing research about the Haitian legislature - in the run-up to the second round of parliamentary elections, we'll be trying to get a handle on how many members of parliament will be rookies, what kind of training they'll need - everything from finding the bathroom to computer training, to parliamentary procedure.

So, stay tuned - assuming I have email access (theoretically, we do, although it tends to be intermittent), I'll post my adventures here.