Haitian Ferry Tragedy Signals Infrastructure Woes

Haitian peasants traveling to the capital to sell produce often must do so under great hardships

THE shipwreck of the Haitian ferry Neptune was the country's worst nautical disaster in the past 40 years. But observers warn that the decrepit state of Haiti's infrastructure could force a repeat of the incident.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from his exile in Washington, said the Feb. 17 tragedy was a consequence of what he called Haiti's current situation of anarchy and disregard for human life.

Haiti's Maritime and Navigation Service has little if any authority, making it difficult to estimate how many people died after the Neptune capsized. Passengers travel without life preservers and crews have no radio equipment. The Neptune catastrophe went unreported for nearly 24 hours.

The cold reality is that these conditions do not deter peasants living in the countryside, who need to travel to the capital for economic reasons regardless of the poor state of infrastructure.

The average price per bag of charcoal in Jeremie, where the Neptune originated, is 13 gourdes (about $1.08). In Port-au-Prince, the price is 53.75 gourdes. Rice is 2.25 gourdes per pound in Jeremie versus 3.10 gourdes in the capital.

People at market sell their produce at enough of a profit to buy goods largely available only in the capital.

Peasants know that traveling in Haiti is both a hardship and a risk. On land, the small percentage of roads that are paved are so pock-marked that a 50-mile stretch can take up to three hours, and it is 183 miles from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince. Heavy rains can wash away sections of roads or leave them flooded for weeks.

Driver's licenses are frequently obtained not for one's driving ability, but rather by one's financial situation. Although there is a legal limit of passengers per vehicle, that again is a question of economics.

Most bus drivers, who receive a fixed salary, make extra money by pocketing the fares of excess passengers. Traffic police are part of the Haitian Army and often let violations slide for a small bribe.

Because they are transporting large quantities of agricultural products and livestock, the majority of people traveling from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince choose to travel by boat.

The cost (about $3) and the time (about 11 hours) are about the same as traveling by land, but they are able to negotiate better prices for transporting their goods by boat.

On the Feb. 16 voyage of the Neptune, 750 officially ticketed passengers boarded. Some estimate there were one and a half times as many "unofficial" passengers. Witnesses say that after those ticketed boarded the boat, another rush of people bribed their way on, and canoes were launched to transport many more out to the ferry.

According to the Haitian Press Agency, there were also 550 sacks of coffee, 450 sacks of beans, an undetermined quantity of charcoal and coconuts, and several dozen cows, pigs, and goats.

One reason this ferry was so weighted down was that it was the only one operating. Several months ago, a second ferry stopped serving Jeremie for economic reasons, while a third has been docked for repairs in the Dominican Republic for the past several weeks. These ferries are privately owned. The government does not provide any assistance to people transporting their goods to market.

AROUND 1:00 a.m. on Feb. 17, under heavy rain, the Neptune capsized. Testimonies from survivors claim that the ferry tipped because people crowded to the side of the ship that was sheltered from the storm, throwing the 150-foot vessel off balance.

An estimated 300 people survived, many of whom spent up to 36 hours in coastal waters before reaching shore. They used everything from livestock to buckets as buoys to help them reach land safely. Those who survive say it was because the seas were calm and it was not a severe storm. It was raining lightly.

The de facto prime minister, Marc Bazin, pronounced Feb. 20 a day of national mourning and he canceled pre-Carnival festivities. Carnival officially started yesterday.

Evans Paul, the mayor of Port-au-Prince who was ousted along with President Aristide in the September 1991 coup, asked for Carnival bands to sacrifice this year's celebration, meditate on the deaths of the victims, and reflect on how to avoid another similar catastrophe. He also criticized the government's response to the disaster.

"If this government were serious, they would have declared Monday, Feb. 22, a day of national mourning," he said, "not Saturday when schools and public services generally don't function."

"This is typical of the masquerade that is going on in Haiti," said one Carnival-goer who is boycotting this year's celebration. "Look at those who are responsible for our country. Look at what they are doing - crying today, dancing tomorrow. Instead of throwing away $8 million on Carnival, why don't they invest it in the country - repair and build the roads?"

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