Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti's Elite

(Photo by John Carroll)
Haiti's Elite Hold Nation's Future in their Hands

A few businessmen like Gregory Mevs will decide how -- or whether -- Haiti recovers from one of the worst natural catastrophes in modern times.

By Tracy Wilkinson

January 21, 2010

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

Gregory Mevs leaped from his armored silver Toyota SUV and marched past the guards and mango trees into what serves these days as the center of the Haitian government.

He was ready to dispense a million gallons of fuel to the earthquake-ravaged capital. But the paperwork was not in order. He needed the Haitian prime minister's signature.

Ten minutes later, he had it.

Mevs can do that. He has the prime minister's ear. He hobnobs with people like Bill Clinton, George Soros and the chief executives of the world's largest corporations. He is one of Haiti's storied elite, a member of one of the six families that control the Haitian economy and have essentially called the shots here for generations.

They are mostly light-skinned, multilingual entrepreneurs with a dismal reputation for profiting handsomely on the backs of the poorest people in the hemisphere. The actions they take now will prove decisive in how -- or whether -- Haiti recovers from one of the deadliest natural catastrophes in modern times.

"A lot of friends say, 'Get out, it's only going to get worse before it gets better.' But all of us have to be here," said Mevs, a solidly built, slightly balding man of 50. "We have to rebuild. There is no choice."

The rich do have a choice. They could easily pull up stakes and go somewhere else. The question is whether they will go, or whether they will decide to throw themselves into the (potentially money-making) business of reconstruction.

As of Wednesday, the majority seemed bent on the latter, pledging to do what it takes to get Haiti back on its feet.

Some have described Haiti's earthquake as "democratic" because it afflicted poor and rich alike. That would be an oversimplification.

The rich are never hurt the same way the poor are. Their capacity for revival, thanks to resources, private planes and visas, vastly outdistances that of the poor and middle class.

Certainly, however, they are suffering too. Their houses and offices also collapsed. Few, if any, of their number died, but there were injuries and the loss of friends and employees.

It takes people with Mevs' skills and wherewithal to get much of anything done in Haiti these days. What's left of the government -- every major institution was pulverized -- has essentially ceded important sections of the recovery operations to the businessmen.

In theory, these businessmen report to a committee that includes members of President Rene Preval's administration, but most are acting independently. It has to be that way, they'd argue.

"We have, more than ever, a tremendous responsibility to help this country rebuild. We are needed," Mevs said. "I know people, I have access, I can get financing, I know how to negotiate."

Mevs' days are filled with all that and more. His BlackBerry buzzing incessantly, he rushes to hospitals to see how much gasoline they need, then gets it for them. He oversees the off-loading of tons of Dutch aid. He sets up computers for the provisional government, which is working out of a police station flying the Haitian flag at half-staff.

In Armani eyeglasses and Hugo Boss jeans, with a Mont Blanc pen in his shirt pocket, Mevs climbed into the armored SUV one day this week and escorted two reporters through some of the damaged parts of his empire.

The Mevs family owns all the petroleum storage facilities in the country, 30% of the Internet business, a 2.4-million-square-foot industrial park and a network of 50 warehouses for food and other material, among many other properties.

Mevs figures he lost as much as $40 million at the wharf his family owns, where most oil shipments are received. That's only a fraction of his financial losses, however. And when half the wharf fell into the sea, it took 54 workers with it.

Most of the elite are descendants of Europeans who in the mid- to late 1800s came to Haiti, a nation that had been founded largely as a slave plantation. (Mevs' grandfather came from Hamburg, Germany, in search of a rare breed of parrot.) They were -- and are, for the most part -- merchants. Their money is from commerce.

They control all the major sectors of the economy, from banking and telecommunications to apparel factories and food. They go to the French schools here, and they attend university in Miami. They vacation in Europe. They live farther up the hills that rise above the squalor of Port-au-Prince.

Haitians sometimes refer to them as the Bambam, each letter the initial of one of the six families. During tense times under populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when politicians stoked class warfare and pointed to the nation's egregious income gap, they were called MREs. Not after the packaged military "meals ready to eat"; rather, the initials stood for "morally repugnant elites."

Patrick Elie, a leftist sociologist who has been extremely critical of Haiti's elite, said the magnitude of the disaster may shake the wealthy out of their complacency. Several have spoken of feeling "humbled" by the ordeal.

"This crisis will separate those who can pick up and go from those with real roots, who are heavily invested in Haiti and whose survival depends on the survival of the country," Elie said.

As if to suggest the beginnings of a new Haitian world order, Elie was sitting outside the government's refuge next to Mevs' brother, Fritz -- an ardent Aristide ally wearing a Che Guevara cap next to one of Haiti's wealthiest men. They embraced.

Gregory Mevs bristled when a visitor referred to him as part of the cabal of families running the place. It's an unfair and outdated image, he argued. Years of dictatorship stifled any sense of civic duty, he said, but today's globalized economy means that entrepreneurs can no longer cling to colonial ways.

"My generation is between two worlds," he said. "We had to learn how to reach out, we had to learn to work with social responsibility."

Mevs' house, next door to the prime minister's, was damaged, and he and his family have been camping at a friend's house, sleeping on their lawn. His children, who were at home when the quake hit, watched in horror as an exterior wall collapsed and crushed the family gardener to death. Mevs' niece was among the people trapped at the Hotel Montana, a legendary salon for the Haitian elite and visiting intelligentsia that pancaked into a concrete mountain. Rescuers pulled her from the rubble.

As Mevs traveled about Port-au-Prince, he bounced between eagerness to rebuild and despair over the devastation. His chauffeur has been so traumatized, he said, that he has been in two wrecks in the last few days.

Mevs noted that Haitian construction uses a lot of pillars and concrete slabs to withstand hurricanes. No one was thinking much about earthquakes, he said. The gorgeously quaint slat-wood house built in 1911 that serves as Mevs' main office endured the quake undisturbed.

He acquired the armored vehicle with darkened windows and diplomatic license plates four years ago at his wife's request, he said. He was working a lot in Cite Soleil, the enormous slum that abuts some of his commercial properties.

The license plates speak to another quirk of Haiti's elite: Most have finagled posts as honorary consuls of any number of countries. It's sort of a status symbol, like owning the latest iPod.

Mevs is the official consul of Finland.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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