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No room for poor in ‘new Haiti’
Fights over land stall recovery six months after devastating earthquake
CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti | The sun was beating down on the rocky cactus plain when men with machetes came for Menmen Villase, nine months pregnant, shoved her onto her bulging stomach and sliced up the plastic tarp that sheltered her and her four children.
The family was one of thousands of earthquake homeless who had come to this Manhattan-sized stretch of disused sugar cane land between the sea and barren mountains north of Port-au-Prince, seeking refuge from overflowing camps in the city.
But this real estate is earmarked for building a new Haiti. Ms. Villase had walked into one of the fights over land — rooted in Haiti’s history of slavery, occupation and upheaval — that have served to slow recovery to a near-standstill in the six months since the earthquake leveled much of the capital and killed as many as 300,000 people.
The government, already weak before the magnitude 7 quake and still hobbled by its aftermath, is trying to build anew in places like Corail-Cesselesse, a nearly empty swath of land that begins about nine miles north of the capital. But the effort is paralyzed by disorganization, bitter rivalries and private deals.
Multiple families claim title to almost every scrap of real estate. One reconstruction official has been forced to step down for steering a public project to his company’s private land at Corail-Cesselesse. Wealthy landowners warn that the “new Haiti” will become yet another vast slum unless the government rebuilds on their terms.
Caught in the middle are the homeless, looking to grab a patch of ground from the thugs hired to keep them away. Even facing machetes, Ms. Villase had to be dragged from her flimsy shelter.
“I didn’t want them to take the tent away,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We don’t care. We can rip it up while you’re inside.’”
In the moments after the disaster, all Port-au-Prince began pouring into twilit streets. Homes, still collapsing, had in a moment become death traps. Camps rose on public and private spaces, squares, parks and golf courses.
Bodies were everywhere, laid out under sheets, cardboard or nothing. Most were cleared by garbage trucks and front-loaders. Others were burned. Some are still being found.
But rubble, an estimated 26 million cubic yards of it, continues to make most of the capital impassable. Even with 300 trucks working daily, 98 percent of the rubble remains.
The number of people in relief camps has nearly doubled to 1.6 million, while the amount of transitional housing built is minuscule.
Most of the $3.1 billion pledged for humanitarian aid has paid for field hospitals, plastic tarps, bandages and food, plus salaries, transportation and upkeep of relief workers. About $1.3 billion went through U.S. relief groups.
Hundreds of millions have yet to be spent, with agencies such as the American Red Cross saying they want to avoid dumping money into half-baked projects.
Aid workers say the money already spent helped prevent epidemics, floods and political violence, while distributing food and other essentials. Food markets are back to normal, and the foreign doctors and equipment that flowed in have left medical care — while deeply flawed — better than it was before the quake.
Most Haitians didn’t have running water and electricity before the quake, and still don’t.
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