Haiti's elite spared from much of the devastation
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 18, 2010
PETIONVILLE, HAITI -- Through decades of coups, hurricanes, embargoes and economic collapse, the wily and powerful business elite of Haiti have learned the art of survival in one of the most chaotic countries on Earth -- and they might come out on top again.
Although Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed many buildings in Port-au-Prince, it mostly spared homes and businesses up the mountain in the cool, green suburb of Petionville, home to former presidents and senators.
A palace built atop a mountain by the man who runs one of Haiti's biggest lottery games is still standing. New-car dealers, the big importers, the families that control the port -- they all drove through town with their drivers and security men this past weekend. Only a few homes here were destroyed. "All the nation is feeling this earthquake -- the poor, the middle class and the richest ones," said Erwin Berthold, owner of the Big Star Market in Petionville. "But we did okay here. We have everything cleaned up inside. We are ready to open. We just need some security. So send in the Marines, okay?" As Berthold stood outside his two-story market, stocked with fine wines and imported food from Miami and Paris, his customers cruised by and asked when he would reopen. "Maybe Monday!" he shouted, then held up his hand to his ear, for his customers to call his cellphone. So little aid has been distributed that there is not much difference between what the rich have received and what the poor have received. The poor started with little and now have less; the elites simply have supplies to last. But search-and-rescue operations have been intensely focused on buildings with international aid workers, such as the crushed U.N. headquarters, and on large hotels with international clientele. Some international rescue workers said they are being sent to find foreign nationals first. There is an extreme, almost feudal divide between rich and poor in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, up in the mountains, the gated and privately guarded neighborhoods resemble a Haitian version of Beverly Hills, but with razor wire. Elias Abraham opened the door of his pretty walled compound, a semiautomatic pistol on his right hip and his family's passports in his back pocket. His extended family's fleet of four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles are filled with gas. He has a generator big enough to power a small hotel. And even if his kids are sleeping in the courtyard because they are afraid of the continuing aftershocks, his maids are dressed in crisp, blue uniforms and his hospitable wife is able to welcome visitors with fresh-brewed coffee. Abraham has not been unaffected by the quake. His Twins Market grocery store collapsed Tuesday and fell prey to looters Wednesday. "They took everything," said Abraham, the Haitian-born son of a Syrian Christian merchant family. "I don't care. God bless them. If they need the food, take it. Just don't take it and sell it for a hundred times what it is worth.
"This is not the time to think about making money," he added. "We need security. We need calm."
Up in the mountains, there are flower vendors selling day-old roses across the street from refugees in tents. There are beauty salons, fitness gyms and French restaurants. All of them shuttered but mostly undamaged.
Few buildings collapsed in Petionville and the surrounding area, but a drive through the hillsides found only three or four spilling into ravines. "Thank God for the mountain," said Wesley Belizaire, who escaped to the hills above Petionville with 15 friends and family members to camp out in a sprawling stucco. "It is so safe, safe, safe." The house belongs to his boss, the owner of a travel agency, who was visiting the Bahamas when the quake struck. The police are operating out of a well-supplied station in Petionville, where the parking lot was filled with idle police trucks. There have been few reports of looting here, even though the town has banks on every corner. HervÃ© Delorme, executive marketing director of Sogebank, stood outside a branch and said the building was safe and sound. "Only because of the electricity and communications we do not have the technology available to open," he said. Across the street, one of the few pharmacies in the area was open. It was guarded by three Haitian police officers with rifles who let one customer in at a time. Down at the General Hospital, families wandered through the courtyard filled with patients with amputated limbs and open wounds, begging foreigners for medicine. For better or worse, it will likely be the residents of Petionville who through their government connections, trading companies and interconnected family businesses will receive a large portion of U.S. and international aid and reconstruction money. After a service at St. Louis Catholic Church in Port-au-Prince early Sunday, Yva Souriac was warning her fellow parishioners of what would come next with international assistance. "They only give the aid money to the same big families, over and over. So I ask, what is the point? They have given money to these families to help Haiti for 50 years, and look at Haiti. I say the Americans need to make up a new list."