One of the great gaps in Western media coverage of Haiti is the constant ignoring of American and corporate complicity in keeping the place on its knees. It’s something I saw during my visit there last week.
A story in yesterday’s New York Times was a perfect example of this curse. There is barely any mention in the piece below that a Western company has yet again come in to “save” Haiti. Sovereignty is something to be traded. Independence a distant dream. One of the key points I kept on hearing there was that the nation was controlled by foreign governments, Washington and NGOs. Challenging that is key:
Armed mobs have marched on it. Desperate presidents have fled it. Crowds have partied outside its majestic gates.
But after more than 90 tumultuous years of history, the National Palace in Haiti, which was heavily damaged by the January 2010 earthquake, ended up as little more than a potent symbol of the stalled recovery. It is now being hauled away.
The J/P Haitian Relief Organization, a charity run by the actor Sean Penn that has done extensive removal of rubble in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, has begun razing it. Piece by shattered piece, the 92-year-old, E-shaped, gleaming white French Renaissance palace that contrasted with Haiti’s misery will be ripped apart over the coming months and carted off.
This week, dozens of spectators looked on as buckled walls supporting its listing signature dome, which once proudly flew the Haitian flag, came down in a cloud of dust.
While some commentators have lamented losing a historical treasure — and expressed some annoyance at the fact that an American-run nongovernmental organization was doing the work — many spectators seemed glad to see an eyesore go.
“It was very painful to see the palace after the quake,” said Luc Fednan, 45, as he watched the construction crews at work.
“It is like one of your children died, and now it’s time to do the funeral,” he said. “That’s the case of the palace.”
Images of the shattered palace, housing the residence and official offices of the president and his staff, made vividly clear the force of the magnitude 7.0 quake on Jan. 12, 2010. The president at the time, René Préval, was at his private residence at the time, but several people were killed there, as well as at other heavily damaged or destroyed government buildings.
Sensitive papers and materials were eventually removed, and government business is now conducted in trailers and smaller buildings constructed around the palace.
When President Michel Martelly took office in May 2011, he said that reconstructing the palace, even if it were possible, would not be a priority, given the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in tents. At least 350,000 people remain without homes.
But presidential aides said he came to believe that progress toward recovery was being made, with rubble removal, new building projects and more children returning to school, and that the world was stuck on the image of the palace’s collapse.
Government-commissioned studies declared the palace a lost cause, said Damian Merlo, an adviser to Mr. Martelly. In a meeting with Mr. Penn to discuss other matters, the issue of the palace came up and Mr. Penn offered to demolish it, Mr. Merlo said.
He said he did not know how much it would have cost the government to do the work.
The government has not decided how or when it will build a new palace. Some pieces of the old one will be preserved, perhaps to be used in a museum or memorial, officials said, but most of the debris will go toward needed landfill in a nearby slum and the rest to a city dump.
“It was important to remove because it was a symbol of the tragedy,” Mr. Merlo said. “As the president implements policies and things improve, the damaged palace is a reminder of what happened.”
Benjamin Krause, country director for the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, portrayed the project as a mostly Haitian endeavor, bowing to the sensitivities of a country that threw off French colonial domination but has wrestled with foreign intervention, and the level and form of international aid to accept, ever since.
He said all but 15 or 20 of the organization’s 330 workers were Haitian, as were the vast majority of laborers on the project. He said the charity was well suited for the work because it filled about 50 dump trucks per day as part of its rubble removal efforts.
In some ways it is just another tumultuous chapter for the palace. At least four different structures have stood on those grounds. One was destroyed in a revolt in 1869, another was bombed in an attack in 1912 in which the president was killed.
The current palace was designed by a Haitian architect but completed by American naval engineers in 1920 during a United States occupation.
“There is a somewhat painful fact that this bookends its history,” said Laurent Dubois, a French professor at Duke University who studies Haitian history. “It points directly to the strong and ongoing role of the U.S. in essentially shaping the possibility of Haitian sovereignty. It was completed during a U.S. occupation and this end emerged because Sean Penn’s organization is involved in its demolition.”