By TRENTON DANIEL
L’ESTERE, Haiti — This town in the Haitian hinterlands has a mostly unpaved main road, scant public services, a main hospital that closes on weekends and few jobs besides farming.
The situation in L’Estère is typical of small towns in Haiti, where resources — what little there are — flow to the central government in Port-au-Prince and little if any return. The archaic relationship between the provinces and the capital will likely be another casualty of Jan. 12’s devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake.
At a critical aid conference in New York later this month, Haitian leaders intend to outline a rebuilding plan that more fully incorporates rural areas like L’Estère into the development of the country.
“The momentum is for a decentralized state,” said Leslie Voltaire, a Cornell-educated city planner and architect who’s worked in several administrations. “We need laws that give more power to the municipalities and provinces.”
The plans have not been released, but Haitian officials and foreign allies point to a need to increase agricultural production, tourism, and build up infrastructure. Although Haitian President René Préval has called decentralization a “priority” for his administration, it is almost certain to be up to his successor to finish the job. Préval, elected in 2006, is expected to leave office early next year.
Ideas under consideration include:
• Opening passport and drivers license bureaus outside Port-au-Prince, which would spare rural residents the hassle and expense of schlepping to the capital to renew identification papers.
• Creating 200 “welcome centers” in villages and towns, which would provide new arrivals with education and health services, relief services, government services. They would be temporary posts initially and would later become permanent.
• Establishing a national civic service corps modeled after the New Deal, which would hire young people to work in both rural and urban areas.
• Developing an apparel industry outside Port-au-Prince and providing access to financial services that are almost nil in the provinces.
• Launching construction projects to build 10 roads, 15 bridges, and expanding the little-used international airport in the northern city of Cap Haitien.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told The Miami Herald that in the short-term, officials plan to pursue “deconcentration,” or pumping services into rural areas instead of transferring power away from the central government.
The process would include paving or repaving major roads — and building power grids — to support activities in the provinces. He said the government would then invest in public health, education, water distribution and other projects.
Critics say officials need to overhaul the government structure, which could mean transferring employees from the bright lights of Port-au-Prince to slower-paced provinces, a move likely to be controversial.
“It’s all fair and good to talk about decentralization but they need to go beyond making Port-au-Prince smaller,” said Alex Dupuy, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University and longtime Haiti scholar.
Dupuy suggested the government build community colleges, trade schools, and primary schools in the countryside, all of which would create jobs. Most universities were built in the capital.
“That would be a very significant investment in Haiti,” Dupuy added.
The government’s proposal would alter dramatically the country’s demographic landscape. After being an agrarian society in the 1800s, Haiti became more urban in the 1900s.
The U.S. military occupation from 1915 to 1934 modernized Port-au-Prince’s infrastructure and formed the Haitian military. But Port-au-Prince didn’t become Haiti’s political and economic hub until the 1950s and 1960s.
Dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier shut down provincial ports and tore up their roads to undermine his opponents. In the 1980s, assembly plants opened in the capital, prompting thousands of farmers to abandon the fields in search of jobs and amenities. The central government collected taxes through the ports and border towns but little of that money was returned.
In a city built for some 300,000, the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area’s population ballooned to an estimated three million before the quake — many squeezed into congested shantytowns.
There was the “Republic of Port-au-Prince” and everything else was andeyo, Creole for “countryside.” Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, have provided services such as healthcare because the state simply could not.
SENSE OF ABANDONMENT
Haiti’s neglected outskirts became apparent after the earthquake: The government and humanitarian groups had to truck in relief supplies from the neighboring Dominican Republic because local officials had failed to develop ports and airports outside Port-au-Prince. Many agree that that the quake’s death toll of more than 200,000 wouldn’t have been so high had Port-au-Prince not housed so many people.
That geologists predict another pummeling quake soon only underscores the urgent need to develop outside Port-au-Prince, say Haiti officials and experts.
In L’Estère, located 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the sense of abandonment is clear. Homes off National Route 1 are constructed of mud and tin and some remain padded with blue tarps from the 2008 hurricane season, where four back-to-back storms killed nearly 800 people and caused $1 billion in damage.
“We run the city by ourselves — that’s how we operate — but we can’t do it alone,” said Alexis Fortunat, mayor of L’Estère, his badge clipped to a pressed shirt. “The government gives us just the salary and we struggle to take care of everything else.”
Fortunat said he receives only a salary for 50 employees from the Ministry of Interior, the government agency in charge of the provinces. Remote towns, he said, could benefit from having their own budgets.
LACKING A VOICE
They could also use a voice in affairs that concern their town, he said.
He described how the Haitian National Police force yanked some of his officers after the department lost officers in the quake. Fortunat once had 14 cops to patrol his city of 5,300; now he has only five. That opened the door for bandits to set up their own checkpoints at the city limits.
“They do whatever they want,” he said of the bandits. “They block the road to assault people.”
Off National Route 1, Bernochat Fevrier, a town official, holds court in a dirt patch ringed by adobe-style homes. He points to land that could be used to house assembly plants. In the same breath, he longs for the central government to provide the basics: a vehicle to rush the injured to an outlying hospital, or even a hospital stocked with medical supplies, and water for rice farmers.
“The most important thing we need is water,” Fevrier said. “We produce enough food for ourselves but we can’t go to the government for help.”
Miami Herald Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed reporting.
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