12 March 2010
I was going to write about the restaurants. Last week, with so many visitors, I sampled some of the local eateries again, and it was as if nothing had changed from 10 years ago. La Plantation was packed, as always, and served excellent food, including Escargot de Kenscoff. Les Coins des Artist was, as always, good for a Lobster Brochette, and the selection of sauces put on the table was just like before. The only thing that had changed is that the animated French that used to be spoken at the tables was replaced by loud American English: the aid workers have taken over. Petionville, where most of the agencies have their local head quarters as well as their residences, has been invaded by foreigners, there have never been more expatriates in Haiti then ever before. Business is booming, and I could as well have gone to a dozen other restaurants. It was going to be an upbeat story.
No more. The kidnapping of two foreign aid workers last Friday has changed the scene, likely for a while. It was bound to happen. Haiti has a long history of kidnappings for ransom. When we were here before, it was the rich Haitian families that were targeted by the gangs. There were kidnappings every month or so. Later, after we left, it became worse, and at the height of the kidnapping wave, in 2007, it is said that there were as many as five abductions per day (really!!, Columbia is peanuts compared to the worst of Haitian talents). This was not just the rich families anymore, there are not that many rich families. But, through concerted effort of police and MINUSTHA – the UN troops here -, kidnapping gangs were identified and arrested, and life returned to slightly more normal again. Hardened criminals were put in jail.
The earthquake did two things. It made the prison collapse, allowing many of those criminals to escape. I have often said that there were more criminals outside than inside the prison, but apparently police had been successful, and the great escape is indeed a major setback. The quake also mobilised lots of money, which is going to be invested in this country through the aid agencies. The new targets.
The two women were abducted close to their office, in Petionville, early evening. It could have happened to anybody. The attack appears to have been professionally conducted, armed, masked men, quickly got to the car after briefly blocking the road. Professionals, clearly. The ordeal for the poor women, who like many of us came to help Haiti get back on its feet, lasted almost a week, they were released last night, unharmed. No news about ransom: hopefully nothing has been paid, not to encourage others. The good thing was that the story has been kept out of the news for almost a week, not to jeopardize the negotiations. (Now Reuters carries it, and AP, AFP and the Wall Street Journal.)
The response of almost all big aid agencies was swift: reduce the risk to staff, bring curfew forward etc. No more dining out. No more loud American accents. The boom that could have been has been smothered in the narrow interest of the criminal gangs. Haitian business suffers. And aid agencies might well start to think twice about their operating in Haiti, about their enthusiasm to rebuilt this country. What if nobody wants to come anymore?
What started as an upbeat story has, unfortunately, turned into identifying yet another challenge to the recovery of Haiti.
next: the haircut