In my first professional life I was a journalist, and Haiti was part of my beat. It was always a little strange. Haiti was prone to having a coup d'etat every year or two, each government being overthrown in its turn. In fact, ask a Haitian how old he is and he is as likely to give you the name of the president when he was born, as he is to give you the year.
One time there was rumor of another coup. I started calling all the government offices and found a minister of education working late. "No, no, everything is fine, there is no coup," he told me. Next thing, we both heard gunfire. He turned out the lights in his office, dropped to the floor, peeked out his window and told me there were tanks rolling into the courtyard. For the next hour or so, he proceeded to narrate the revolution to me until finally soldiers burst in. His last words to me were "Call my wife." He survived though, and a couple of months later we were reunited at the Miami International Airport.
In 1988, I was sent to Haiti to cover the overthrow of President Leslie Manigat by Gen. Henri Namphy. While there, I had a chance to go places and see things that most people never will. I had an advantage over some of the other reporters in that I could speak French, and thus get by in Creole. I met a Belgian missionary who offered to go with me into the Cité Soleil, a sprawling slum of 250,000 on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. My article was published on June 25, 1988. Some excerpts might give you some idea of just what sort of place this was before the earthquake:
By MARK MERENDA
Miami News Reporter
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI —
The trip to hell costs 10 cents.
Near the Haitian capitol's Iron Market you can catch a "taptap" — one of the colorful, open-backed pickup trucks that serve as jitneys. There are three taptap routes in Port-au-Prince: Delmas, Aeroport, and Soleil, which leads to the teeming slum on the city's northern outskirts that's home to a quarter-million wretched souls.
From the market it costs a dime for the 20-minute ride to Cité Soleil — Sun City — a trip punctuated by the bleating of car horns in impossibly snarled traffic, the heat and dust, and the frequent stops to pick up and discharge passengers from the eight-seat vehicle.
You know you have arrived at the Cité Soleil when you pass a man in the street hauling an immense wooden rickshaw behind him. He is called a donkey boy and he carries up to 25 100-pound sacks of sugar and charcoal up a hill to market. He might make $5 for each trip. If his bouret is too heavy, he will have to share the money with a helper or two who push while he pulls.
Once a person begins work as a donkey boy, his life expectancy is seven years.
Cité Soleil is a labyrinth of poverty. There are no streets, no electricity, no toilets, no hope.
The slum is divided into four parts: Boston, Brooklyn, La Saline, and Cité Carton. Boston and Brooklyn get their names from cities from which luckier Haitians send money home to relatives and friends. La Saline is named for the salt water swamp on which tin shacks have been built. Cité Carton gets its name from the principal construction material for its shanties — cardboard boxes.
Jacques is 28 and lives in the Boston section. Tall and gaunt, he is missing a front tooth and is clad in worn-out shirt and slacks. Like everybody in steamy Cité Soleil, he sweats profusely.
"I was born in a poor family," Jacques says. "My father died. My mother is living. I have two brothers and one sister, and a daughter."
Jacques hustles for two or three dollars a day, running small errands. But that's an income in Cité Soleil, and every person with an income supports 10 others in this slum. On this day, Jacques bought a bit of rice, a small amount of beans, a thimble-full of oil and a tiny sack of charcoal. With that he cooked his only meal of the day.
He is one of the lucky ones.
"I am not doing anything," says his friend Fritz. "I am unemployed."
Fritz eats when his buddy, Pierre, gets him something. Pierre makes about $60 a month as a cook for a group of Belgian missionaries. He has three children to support with $15 a week, so he cannot often give his friend a meal.
Occionor also has no job. Sometimes his parents give him 10 or 20 cents. This day, he has eaten three mangos he bought for 10 cents…
Jacques leads the way to the house of a woman named Marie in the Cité Carton. Her home, which she rents for $6 a month, is the size of a bathroom in Miami. She says she is 34, but she looks 80. She has six children. To support them, she cleans an outdoor food stall.
There is one small bed in the house, and the smallest children use it. The others sleep on the floor. All of them are naked. The metal floor has no covering.
Marie says she has not fed her children this day and doesn't have any prospects. They will probably cry all night because they are hungry.
"Maybe tomorrow," she says.
"Here in Cité Soleil we are suffering," Jacques says. "Sometimes we spend three or four days without eating. We taste something sometimes, but it's not really eating. We die very easily."