The Miami Herald
Sep. 16, 2002

Neglected Haitian city bears scars, pain of poverty


  MIRAGOANE, Haiti - Years of deterioration have reduced the narrow streets to paths of rocks. The pungent odor of sewage wafts through the air with every breeze. Thick layers of algae grow like grass in puddles of stagnant runoff water. When the sun sets, only the glow of candles and kerosene lamps penetrates the darkness.

  This is daily life in one of the country's oldest and most neglected cities, a port some 60 miles south of the capital. It bears all the scars and pain of everything that is
  wrong with Haiti and illustrates the vast needs of the Western Hemisphere's most impoverished country.

  ''We don't have electricity, communication is almost nonexistent and it's very difficult to drive on these roads,'' said Gary Mazile, 48, a former mayor and activist.
  ``When it rains, you need a boat to get around.''

  Frustrated at the lack of basic needs, Miragoane has become another hotbed of discontent, even as international organizations take steps to release hundreds of millions of dollars, which the government has said will help pay for infrastructure projects.

  The Organization of American States has agreed to resume funding that had been frozen because of political strife, but skeptics doubt they will ever see the benefits of international aid.

  ''They've told us many times that we'd get electricity but we never do,'' said Tisoeur Michel, 26. ``They give us hope but nothing ever happens so we don't believe

  Jose St. Louis, the pastor of a Baptist church, said the aid is unlikely to resume any time soon because it is conditioned on creating an electoral council within three
  months and bringing to justice those involved in political crimes.

  ''Those things will be impossible to fulfill,'' St. Louis said. ``The resolution is just another veil over people's eyes.

  ``Liberating the funds was only a diplomatic gesture because when people want to help you for real, they don't put so many conditions. It's not that I don't have hope, it's that there is no will from the government.''

  Miragoane's electricity was completely cut off about five years ago. Less than 20 percent of the homes have running water. Only two dozen phone lines are available for a population of about 70,000, including six suburbs.


  Tired of waiting for handouts, many residents have taken to the streets. They want a portion of tax dollars invested in the region. Home to the country's third largest
  port, Miragoane unloads goods from seven to 12 cargo ships that arrive monthly from Miami and New York.

  The government rakes in between $1.5 million and $2 million in import taxes on the shipments, which include everything from household goods to cars, according to several activists.

  ''We're just asking for a better life. We're giving the government assets, so they should give a little back,'' Mazile, the former mayor, said. ``We want at least one or two percent of the taxes to come back to the town.''

  Recently, demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires and took to the airwaves to demand improvements. The government responded by sending the riot squad to quell the unrest. Six people were shot and several more were injured.

  Residents said the special unit, known by the acronym CIMO, went on a rampage killing some 100 goats and 20 cows -- prized possessions for impoverished people. The protesters used the carcasses to build barricades.

  ''We are not fighting against Aristide, we are fighting against the system,'' Mazile said. ``We need to fight for what we deserve. We have to have what normal people need to live.''

  The protests are a desperate step from people who feel they have little to lose. Most residents begin their day hauling containers of water from shared water stations to their homes.

  Thin women and children walk for hours with the heavy loads on their heads as part of their daily chores. Those lucky enough to have money for food must cook
  outdoors over hot metal stoves that burn charcoal.


  Miragoane, a city more than 350 years old, was once used as a rest stop by pirates. Its name came from Spanish conquistadors who must have been impressed with the number of iguanas here at the time.

  Most point to the 1960s and 1970s as the region's heyday, when it served as a processing hub for Reynolds, the makers of aluminum foil. The red soil here contains a mineral used to make the product. But the company left in the early 1980s, leaving behind its electrical plant.

  The plant was utilized for several years, but the government could no longer afford to pay for the power. So it began to ration electricity until it came to a halt five years ago.

  Nelson Leon used to work for the company, but he was not able to find a new job when the plant shut down. So his wife peddles home-cooked meals on the street to support a family of nine. ''We eat once a day,'' said Leon, 65. ``The situation is very hard. We can't afford to eat more than that. At night, sometimes we drink coffee to kill the hunger.''


  Miragoane's rapid decline appears to have had a psychological effect on its residents. One man walks around shouting obscenities. Another who speaks English and wears a kerchief around his head calls himself ``Black Jack.''

  In the center of town, an artist paints pristine lakes with birds and women in flamboyant hats rising toward the sky. He promotes his ''surreal exhibit'' on the front steps of a decrepit pre-Colonial house, ignoring the special police unit in sports utility vehicles who patrol the streets, occasionally roughing up locals.

  The ambience is best captured by inscriptions on imported T-shirts worn by residents. ''Hang Tough,'' said one worn by a young man who shied away when asked to share his thoughts on life in Miragoane.

  ''Condemned Dreams,'' stated another. One man penned his own message on the back of a blue shirt. Vag la vie, it read in Creole, which roughly translates as, ``Take life as it comes.''