Bill Clinton and the Country That Never Was
While most of the world has stopped paying attention to Haiti, he has become the de facto leader of the effort to rebuild the country after the historic earthquake. The problem is, there wasn't much there to begin with.
By: Tom Chiarella
Published in Esquire's special August 2010 issue on The Impossible.
After five days in Port-au-Prince, I sat at the hotel bar and ordered a Prestige, the beer of Haiti, the beer of preference — a pretty damned good beer, if you ask me. I liked the word, Prestige, which somehow rolled French off my tongue. And I liked the way the bartenders wrapped the fat brown bottle in a white paper napkin, which in the evening heat clung like gauze to a wound. A jazz trio played under the eaves at one end of the courtyard, well enough that I wondered who they'd played with and what they knew. Next to me: a baby-faced accountant, here from Kentucky to audit microcredit payments, Ryan, the only person at the hotel I could stand to drink with.The rest of them were NGO volunteers or medics in for a week, insular, high-minded, and somehow vacant in their mutual moral purpose. Just then, some of them were swimming in the hotel pool, a half dozen American nurses and a pair of Canadian surgeons, playing a game of Marco Polo.
Keep in mind: This is now. A kind of now, anyway. Late spring 2010, just five months past the great earthquake that rocked the already roiling city. To the south was a city lot, half full with a twenty-foot pile of wreckage that once constituted an Italian restaurant. A sweeping pile of rubble projected eight feet into the road, having been carried there, one bucket at a time, by an old guy who worked the lot all day with a worn-down mattock. Rubble dropped there on faith in an unscheduled collection. Traffic bent and slowed around it, a little more each day. In that rubble: a child's sock, half a purse, bloated rolls of toilet paper, a key chain, the wet skin of a grocery bag, and notes regarding inventory off the top of a desk long since splintered, or salvaged, or stolen. Used-up gaskets. Broken bottles. Bits of food, too. Pits. Rinds. That was just what I'd seen that morning, when the guards from the hotel let me step into the street for a look while they stood watch, shotguns cocked.
Around the corner, facing the main entrance of the hotel, stood a tent city — more cardboard than plywood, more plywood than tin, more tin than tent pole, more tied-down blue plastic sheeting than anything else — unspooling itself across the Champs de Mars, the former national plaza, rooting fifty thousand people right up to the ruined national palace. That was west. To the north, more: churches, guts blown outward, still somehow uncollected in the street; collapsed apartments, one cement deck piled upon the other, unexcavated and peopled, everyone supposed, by skeletons. Through these streets walked the Haitian citizenry, scores of them, hundreds, thousands. Haitians selling fruit, selling floor mats, selling chickens, washing windows, cooking corn on rusted hibachis, proffering bags of drinking water.
That night in the hotel, with the jazz throbbing, it started to rain. I pulled out my cell phone and texted the single soul I knew in the city of 2.4 million, Emmanuel Midi, my twenty-five-year-old fixer, who'd dropped me there an hour before. I had no idea where he went at night. I thumbed out my concern: Are you safe in this rain?
I'm ok! he texted back. Thanks for asking! I liked the kid. Everything with him was exclamation points.
I didn't know much about the geography of Haiti, but I had known enough to look for Cité Soleil, the notorious slum, as the plane landed. The district occupied a dark, gray clump of land near the airport, at the water's edge. People had warned me about it. The night before I left, in New York, I had watched half of a documentary about it, Ghosts of Cité Soleil, then nudged around the Internet long enough to find State Department travelers' warnings naming it the most dangerous place in the world. It seemed a place apart, beyond reckoning somehow, a place the Haitian government ignored and the UN struggled with — and one that some part of my most greedy heart wanted to see. Then I got my first up-close look at Port-au-Prince, straining, crumbling, collapsing in every quarter, and Cité Soleil was forgotten again.
In the mornings, I sometimes stood in my T-shirt, hands in pockets, on the steps of the hotel, staring across the street at the wall of the tarpaulin city. The hotel clerks fussed at me about going outside. Even when it was a park, when you could see through the arbors right to the walls of the palace, the Champs was not particularly safe. "You can't see past the tents," one told me. "So there is nothing to see." I persisted until he came out from behind the desk, unlocked the folding gate, then unlocked the front door, then stood watching me watch the camp.
One morning, someone in the camp had a rooster. Three men — one shirtless, one pantless, the other fully dressed for work — rousted by the crowing, prowled the curving exterior of a clutch of tents. Two women stood over a charcoal fire, heating up bread. Even at 5:45, the traffic was sometimes loud enough that the rooster was difficult to track. The men closed in. Then the bird went quiet.
Then, in one moment, all three caught sight of me for the first time. The shirtless one walked straight to the edge of the traffic, intent on me. The pantless one at his heels. They called to me, "Monsieur! Mister!" Not good. I turned, and the door swung open for me — a guard, shotgun crooked in his elbow. He said something I couldn't make out. "Bonjour," I replied. But he stopped me to clarify. They're pimps, he was saying. Pimps who watch the doors. You cannot go out there. After that I didn't.