The wealthy enclave of Pétionville, perched on the hills surrounding the devastated city of Port-au-Prince, has always had a problematic relationship with the masses of the poor below. Heavily protected by high walls and the occasional armed security guard, it houses Haiti’s elite. This small elite holds a tight control over the Haitian economy and government and, many fear, will be the ones to benefit most from the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that will come flowing into Haiti in future months. In recent days, stories in the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times have focused on this community and its impact on the country.
In the highest hills of Pétionville, above the ruined Haitian capital, there are no dead on the streets. There is no rubble. The earthquake that killed tens of thousands in the city below hardly touched the people of this wealthy neighborhood. “Most of them chose to leave Haiti until the situation improves,” said Jean Robert, 55, a worker who has been reinforcing walls in the posh neighborhood. “There are homes that have had damage. But they’re few, and I don’t think it’s a problem. They’ll build other ones.”
On the lower sides of the same hill, the change of scene is dramatic: The straight, spacious, tree-lined streets give way to a tangle of tiny homes. Bodies still lie amid the rubble, and the victims await help from international relief agencies. But at the top, business goes on as usual. The hotel Ibo Lele remains open, and there are hardly any cracks in the walls of apartment buildings such as La Clos. Even the church, Divine Mercy Parish, is lucky. There will likely be a Mass on Sunday, and a crack on one of the altar walls will be repaired soon.
“The situation here is different,” said Father Calixto Hilaire, the parish priest, acknowledging that the impact of the quake was hardly felt among the wealthier families in the district.
Hilaire, who has been in charge of Divine Mercy Parish since 2001, says he feels pain at the uncertainty and chaos that surrounds Port-au-Prince. He says he has been waiting for the wealthier parishioners to offer help, but until now, only one family of the hundred or so that attended services two weeks ago has contributed canned goods, water or medicines.
Janel Lettes, a private security guard who keeps watch and handles the maintenance on a Pétionville mansion, is not surprised that the wealthy have not helped more. He says many residents left the neighborhood for the time being, fearing the aftershocks that have shaken the capital since the earthquake last week.
Lettes carries a shotgun and wears a T-shirt identifying him as a guard. His employer’s five-bedroom home, which features a pool and satellite-TV dish, was damaged by the quake and will have to be demolished.
But Lettes said that won’t be much of a headache for the owner, a businessman who left the country shortly after the quake and who plans to rebuild as soon as materials are available. “Aside from that, as you can see, all is tranquil,” he said. “It sounds like a bad joke, because those below are living through hell, and the people are hungry and desperate.”
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.
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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.
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Photo of the aftermath of the quake in Haiti by my favorite Associated Press photographer, Ramon Espinosa.