Five years after quake, Haiti struggles to reopen its doors to the world

Haiti is still rebuilding after a 7.0 earthquake that killed tens of thousands. It's also trying to avoid a massive political upheaval that could scare off the very investors it needs.

REUTERS
A man looks out over Abaka Bay, where one of the island's two boutique hotels is located, on the western side of Ile-a-Vache island, off Haiti's south coast, March 25, 2014.
Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
Children pump water from a well at their new community in the arid hills north of the capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. On the sunbaked hillsides, Haitians are taking care of things on their own even as the government is requesting US help in planning the growing towns. Though impoverished, Haitian families here remain hopeful and too pleased with the bit of progress they’ve made to return to the Port-au-Prince slums where landlords kept jacking up rents.

Growing up on the Haitian island of Ile-a-Vache, Exerre Dieunest used to hate going to school in the rainy season. It was bad enough that there were no buses, but there were also no roads. He walked two hours each way from Kay Kok, and when the paths turned to deep mud, he could hardly manage the trek.

It’s different for kids today. Kay Kok now has a school, “and it’s thanks to tourism,” says Mr. Dieunest. Tourists came, saw the need, established a foundation, and funded the building of a school. Tourist donations also helped expand a local orphanage.

Ile-a-Vache residents see great potential in hospitality, but when the central government tried to launch a major tourism plan here in 2014, it sparked protests from locals who feared a land-grab. The tourism ministry has since achieved buy-in from much of the community, but now it faces another challenge: Keeping the confidence of investors as Haitian democracy teeters on the brink.

Just over five years ago, Haiti looked relatively ripe for investment. Crime was low, there was a reprieve from anti-government demonstrations, and democratic institutions seemed to be functioning better than ever. Haitian and foreign leaders said Haiti was stable, and ready to grow.

That’s when a 7.0 earthquake struck the country, killing tens of thousands of people.

Today, Haiti is rebuilding, still mired in the poverty people had hoped to escape before the earthquake, and now trying to avoid a massive political upheaval – one that could scare off the very investors who could help the country develop. 

The prime minister was deposed in December, and on January 12 most legislators’ terms expire – with no one to replace them due to a failure to hold elections. Popular protests against President Michel Martelly have grown, along with fears he will rule by decree – unless Parliament approves on Monday an agreement reached Sunday night between President Martelly and opposition leaders.  

Ile-a-Vache feels far from the tumult of the capital, but its struggles may exemplify Haiti’s challenges in democracy and development. 

Trust and Development

Ile-a-Vache is a 16-square mile jewel of an island, with rolling hills, paths connecting sweet cottages on a candy-colored bit of Caribbean Sea. But its residents – roughly 15,000 farmers and fishermen – say the government has continuously left them in the dark, literally, with no electricity or roads. Health care and potable water aren't delivered by the government, and tourism remains at a trickle.

But this might change.

After the 2010 earthquake, a government came in with the motto, “Haiti is Open for Business.” The government wooed investors – with massive tax breaks and supportive infrastructure supplied by foreign aid – to take part in an industrial park and capital city hotels. They drew up plans for massive tourism developments, including one on Ile-a-Vache complete with roads, an airport, a port, a marina, 1,000 hotel rooms, and an 18-hole golf course.

The island was finally getting attention, but residents weren’t happy. In early 2014, protesters took to the newly carved roads. A presidential decree declared the island a tourism development zone, property of the government. Waterfront residents were driven from their homes without compensation and roadside dwellers lost fruit trees vital for their livelihoods. Riot police appeared on the island to back up the few officers already there.

But when the tourism minister met with community leaders, gave checks to those robbed of their land, and implemented projects for the community – like drinking wells, a community center, and subsidized community cafeterias – many residents began to show support for the government’s tourism plans, in spite of lingering fears.

An elderly islander named Myltha Boulot says there is no knowing whether or not the government will take her land, but when it comes to tourism: “That’s another thing entirely. If tourists come, they’ll give jobs to the poorest men and women, so people can survive.”

Yet now, if locals don’t block the tourism plan, would-be investors might.

Haiti has peaks and valleys of instability, says Mark Schneider, a long-time Haiti-watcher and senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. “I think we’re at a point close to a peak,” Mr. Schneider says, prior to Sunday's agreement.  That is, if there is no executive-legislative agreement, Martelly might rule by decree, causing more protests, and possibly violence, Schneider says. In which case, “there’s no way for investors to tell their boards or financial backers that the situation is on its way to being resolved and they can go back to expanded plans for development.”

Pamela Cox, who was the World Bank’s vice president for Latin American and the Caribbean at the time of the earthquake, says when nascent democratic institutions fumble, everyone gets spooked.

“Any time there’s huge political uncertainty, it scares investors away,” Ms. Cox says, especially in countries like Haiti, where there’s a lack of domestic trust in the government, and likely civil unrest.

In the coming days, Haiti’s political leaders will signal to investors and constituents whether or not their country is on solid ground.

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