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8788: Island in sun a world away from home of stealth bomber (fwd)
From: Max Blanchet <email@example.com>
World News (Letter From America): Island in sun a world away from home of
Irish Times; Jul 21, 2001
BY PATRICK SMYTH
To step off the plane in Port au Prince, into what he described as the 'heat
of an incinerator', is to step from one world into another, from the best
that the developed world can offer into the teeming home of the western
hemisphere's poorest of the poor.
For Frank McCourt, even the flight from Manhattan was an eye-opener, packed
to the brim with families, children in their brightly coloured Sunday best,
impeccably behaved, laden with presents. Full of hope and awe. Going home.
Ellis Island in reverse.
Mr McCourt, taking time out from a frantic speaking schedule and work on his
third novel - this one about teaching - had readily accepted an invitation
from Concern's New York HQ to travel with its boss, Siobhan Walsh, to visit
Haiti to see the group's work.
We met back in the small office on a hot day last week and he talked of the
trip with a gleam in his eye.
His interest in Haiti goes back a long way - a curiosity nurtured by
fascination with the celebrated hero of its slave revolution and declaration
of independence in 1801, Toussaint L'Ouverture, whom Mr McCourt claims to
have first heard of in his teens. And more recently there has been the
colourful former priest and scourge of the island's one per cent who own
half the country's wealth, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. His Fanmi
Lavalas party rules with a somewhat cavalier attitude to democratic values
and, it is said, to the proper distinction between state and personal
Haiti has a per capita income of less than a dollar a day. Sixty per cent of
its eight million people are unemployed, more than half illiterate, and
three quarters live below the UN poverty line. Two million plus are crowded
into the swollen capital and its disease-ridden slums - vast shantytowns
with open, running sewers. Life is short - 50 years on average. 'Natural
resources: none,' the reference book says bluntly.
Not true, Mr McCourt says. He found in its people a vitality and optimism
that bowled him over, yet in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. 'I
have been in Bombay, Calcutta and Alexandria, and seen poverty' he says,
'but not like this'. Yet, not stereotypical downtrodden victims, he argues,
but energetic people fighting for a chance, knowing what needs to be done
but just lacking the means.
Part of the problem is political paralysis, a stand-off between Mr Aristide
and the opposition Democratic Convergence over allegations that elections
were rigged and an electoral system seen as flawed. There have been threats,
bombs and shootings in the streets. Neither side has clean hands.
The result is a deep suspicion on the part of the international community of
the capacity of the state to handle some dollars 500 million in development
aid that is being held up pending agreement on internal reform which the
Organisation of American States is trying to broker.
President Aristide says he is in favour and has promised to set up an
independent electoral council. The opposition is not yet biting, however.
They are close, but not there yet.
Meanwhile, in the shanty towns, Mr McCourt says, millions scrape an
existence in communities where violence is endemic, living virtually on top
of disease-spreading open drains. 'If the wind changed we gagged', he says.
Social services are virtually non-existent.
Even Concern volunteers have been faced with demands for protection money
and at night, he, like all whites, is confined to a well-protected compound,
hidden like the island's wealthy behind barbed wire.
In the hill town of Sceau D'Eau, three hours up a precarious dirt road, he
visits a school. Children as young as eight have walked here three or four
miles, and study while 'dizzy with hunger' only to walk home again. Then
they are expected to work the fields. One meal a day. 'It's like the hedge
schools,' he says.
Falling ill can be a death sentence up here as access to medical care is
miles away down the road. And at a health centre in Saint Martin the dental
room has equipment provided in the days of old Papa Doc Duvalier - 'You
wouldn't use it on a dog'.
Concern is involved in Haiti in health education, work on basic
infrastructure like paving roads in the shanty towns, and helping to provide
microcredit for family funerals.
What can the international community do? 'The Haiti national debt is dollars
985 million - the price of one stealth bomber. So all they have to do is
build one less,' Mr McCourt says. If only.
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