Eyeing tourism, Haiti battles its violent reputation
Once a popular destination, it sees few tourists despite UN data that indicate country is among the region's safest.
(Page 2 of 2)
Last year, security improved markedly as the number of kidnappings dropped by nearly 70 percent, part of an overall improvement in security under President René Préval, elected in a landslide in February 2006. But earlier this month, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Port-au-Prince to protest an increase in kidnappings. At least 160 people have been kidnapped this year, according to Haitian and UN police, Reuters reports. In all of 2007, 237 people were kidnapped, the report said.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
And in April, thousands of people took to the streets to demand lower food prices, sending images of burning tires and rock-throwing protesters around the world.
Some observers say even when the instability was at its worst, violence was usually limited to a few Port-au-Prince slums.
"If you compare Haiti to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Rwanda, we don't even appear on the same scale," says Patrick Elie, a former defense secretary who heads a government commission on the possible creation of a new security force.
"We've had a tumultuous history, one characterized by political instability," says Mr. Elie. "But except for the war that we had to wage to obtain our freedom and independence from the French, Haiti has never known a level of violence comparable to that which has been waged in Europe, in America, and the European countries in Africa and Asia."
Viva Rio, a Brazilian-based violence reduction group that came to Haiti at the request of the UN, managed in March 2007 to convince warring gangs in Bel Air and neighboring downtown slums to abstain from violence in exchange for youth scholarships. "This would be unthinkable in Rio," says Rubem Cesar Fernandes, Viva Rio's director.
Unlike in Brazil, he says, Haiti's slum-based gangs have little involvement in the drug trade. "Right now in Haiti there is more interest in peace than war," he says. "[T]here is this prejudice that associates Haiti with danger, above all it seems, in the United States. Haiti seems to provoke fear from white North Americans."
Katherine Smith is one American who is not afraid. The young ethnographer has been coming here since 1999 to research voodoo and travels to poor neighborhoods using public transportation.
"The worst that has happened was being pickpocketed during Carnival, but that could happen anywhere," said Ms. Smith. "How little I've been targeted is remarkable given how visible I am."
But many aid workers, diplomats, and other foreigners live behind walls and concertina wire.
And except for émigrés visiting from abroad, tourism is near nonexistent. "It's so frustrating," says Jacqui Labrom, a former missionary who has organized guided tours of Haiti since 1997.
She says street demonstrations are easily avoided and rarely result in violence. "In the '50s and '60s, Haiti taught Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic how to do tourism.... If we didn't have such bad press, it would make such a difference."