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People take to the streets in Jacmel, Haiti for a celebration know as Ra Ra leading up to Easter. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
People take to the streets in Jacmel, Haiti for a celebration know as Ra Ra leading up to Easter. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Project Jacmel

Uncertainty shades slow resumption of routine life Add to ...

The rhythm of old routines has begun to steady the pace of life in Jacmel: After being closed two months, the banks have reopened; Internet cafés lining the main Avenue Barranquilla have plugged in their computers again; most of the city's roadways remain barricade-free at night now that people have ceased bedding down on blankets in the open streets.

On Sundays, hordes of people still head to church dressed in impeccable clothing. And many have resumed the tradition of heading eastward for the afternoon to relax on the sprawl of white-sand beaches. Downtown, packs of moto-taxis have reclaimed the streets from the hulking army bulldozers that clogged them after the earthquake; lineups at the two cellphone outlets no longer last all day, and the shopkeepers hawking cosmetics and clothing are again hanging provocative dresses outside, attempting to lure in customers.

Amid these signs of normality though, there remains a pervading sense of uncertainty, as if a giant question mark hangs in the air above Jacmel, its entire population wondering what, exactly, is supposed to happen next.

"Everybody is on pause right now to see what's going to happen in the future," Mayor Edwin (Edo) Zenny confessed in a recent interview.

Veterans of post-disaster reconstruction efforts say this ambiguity is textbook: As the frenzied emergency phase draws down and first responders pull out, there are always hiccups in the momentum before the engines driving medium-term stabilization efforts - projects that will create foundations for actual rebuilding - gear up.

The discomfort it's causing in Jacmel, however, is compounded by the fact the city was well past its heyday - in need of far more than a rebuilding - long before the 35-second earthquake brought down half its buildings on Jan. 12 and left 8,000 families homeless.

The city's glossy tourism leaflets don't advertise the fact that routine gas shortages paralyze the city every couple of weeks; the local economy was barely limping along in the absence of private industry, which had been unresponsive to local officials' attempts to draw foreign investment.

Although Jacmel has claim to being the first city in the Caribbean to have electricity in the 1920s, about eight hours of citywide blackouts hobble the overstretched system each day. The mostly privatized system of lower education has created rampant illiteracy, and health care at the hospital is an undisputed disaster.

"What we have here is a place where they have a license to kill people," said Amil Roland Zenny, an outspoken cousin of the mayor, who chairs the city's Chamber of Commerce. Pulling a $2,000 fist full of U.S. cash from a desk drawer, he explained that he keeps at least that much money on him at all times in case he needs to purchase an emergency flight out of the country for medical care.

"How many people can do that? Is that a life?" he exclaimed, pounding his fists. "We need to build up the institutions."

Herein lies the rub.

The centralized government of Haiti, based in Port-au-Prince, has rendered municipalities in the outlying regions virtually powerless. The destruction of most government offices there has not lessened the capital city's chokehold on resources in the country, the outlying regions of which hunger for decentralization.

"There is a city hall, but it doesn't have a budget," explained Gerald Mathurin, a former federal agriculture minister who leads a large Jacmel-based social movement called CROSE. "It's a country controlled by Port-au-Prince: schools, university, commerce. Everything is in Port-au-Prince. The regions are kept weak," he said, adding: "We have a real governance problem."

Jacmel itself has no revenue-raising capabilities - any taxes collected are remitted directly to Port-au-Prince - and no real ability to independently engineer a rebuilding process. The city of about 40,000 people didn't even have the capacity for garbage collection until recently, when the President gifted two white garbage trucks.

In fact, the current function of city hall, now run out of the town library, amounts to little more than ribbon-cutting at tent city inaugurations and data collection. The mayor's staff spend their days compiling and then funnelling lists of ruined buildings, decimated businesses and population statistics to Port-au-Prince. They also send requests for funding support, but there is little they can do to influence approvals.

"The only thing we can do is wait to see the outcome," said Michelet Divers, Jacmel's culture and history czar. "You don't have any money in your possession. Your only hope is to wait."

The desperate condition of the city, which is nervously anticipating the onset of the seasonal rains that will turn streets into rushing rivers and flood the tented encampments, has ratcheted up frustrations with the centralized state.

"In Jacmel, we've been fighting with the government. We've been putting on the pressure. My voice is not reaching where it's supposed to be," said Amil Roland Zenny, adding: "I feel powerless."

The international response by both government and non-government groups has done little to mitigate that feeling. While local officials say they are grateful for the aid Jacmel has received thus far, they complain about the aid community's ambivalence to ingratiating itself with them, deferring instead to the government in Port-au-Prince.

"They will not listen to us. They listen to government," Mr. Zenny complained.

There has also been much criticism over the type of projects aid groups and foreign militaries in Jacmel have undertaken - or failed thus far to undertake.

"They go to the orphanages. That's what they like. They take pictures," Mr. Zenny spat. "But what the hell are they really doing here? I see the Canadians making some wood latrines for people … that's what they were doing on the port down there. I mean, come on. Are we building a country?

"I'm talking about rebuilding an economy. And in order to make money, we need investment," he said. "No companies are going to come here like this."

Gueric Boucard is a Haitian-born specialist in essential oils and one of the few members of old-money families who still maintains a residence in Jacmel, although he divides his time between two other residences in the Dominican Republic and Texas.

A well-heeled businessman educated in Germany, Mr. Boucard started a rum factory in Jacmel years ago but tough business conditions forced him to shutter it. Now, he and a small handful of relatives hold deeds for many of the heritage buildings that served as coffee warehouses and artist workshops before the earthquake destroyed most of them. But lack of confidence in the Haitian government - and in the international community that has chosen to support it - will likely keep him from investing in the rebuilding.

"As an owner of buildings that are damaged, I will do absolutely nothing. I'm not throwing good money at it," he said, adding: "I'm not putting one penny in here. I'm going to let it go to ruin."

His rationale?

"The international community comes here with billions of dollars to try to salvage this country … and what do they do? They try to prop up the sovereignty of the failed government. Does that sound like good business?"

Mr. Boucard, like Mr. Zenny, said aid groups in Jacmel must start focusing on revenue-generating projects if they want to have a true impact on the local population.

"Give them tools, show them how to do things that will increase their income," he suggested. "The main thing you have to do is build roads and generate power. You have to give them work to do," he said.


Quantifying the damage and destruction caused by January's earthquake has been an ongoing challenge across the country, including in Jacmel and the surrounding areas. Here's a look at the numbers local and international officials are working with:

  • 148,940: Population of Jacmel and surrounding feeder communities
  • 384: Dead
  • 448: Wounded
  • 11,632: Families affected
  • 15,090: People internally displaced
  • 2,913: Houses destroyed
  • 7,484: Houses damaged
  • 50%-60%: Damage in Jacmel's infrastructure
  • 43: Schools destroyed
  • 13: Camps for internally displaced
  • 6,678: Tents distributed
  • 31,375: Cover sheets distributed
  • 18,501: Mosquito nets distributed

Sources: United Nations, CROSE, Haiti's Ministry of the Interior and Jacmel Chamber of Commerce

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