Daniel-Gerard Rouzier, chairman of the private Haitian power company E-Power, is tan, muscular and compact. Through bites of lunch, taken in a conference room at his soon-to-be completed 30-megawatt plant located on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, he reflects on being Haitian.
“Living here in Haiti could be perceived as a burden to many people. I was born here, and for a long time Haiti felt like a cannonball tied to my ankle, until I realized that living in Haiti is a blessing, a chance to meet Christ everyday. One meets him in the man who has nothing to eat. One meets him in the nuns who ministers to the poor. One meets him in the mother dying from AIDS,” he explained.
Rouzier is also chairman of the board of Food for the Poor (FFP) in Haiti and has worked with the organization for more than 14 years.
While his candor in speaking about his faith is unique, even for a Haitian, his spiritual epiphany is not. Not only did the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake dramatically rearrange the island’s physical landscape, killing some 200,000 people and utterly ruining the capital of Port-au-Prince, it also has had a deep impact on the faith of many Haitians. Time, as many Haitians discovered a year ago this last week, is truly fleeting, and death is always closer than you think.
If Haitians can embrace this deepening of faith, this realignment of their core values, such an embrace could be, just might be, a new beginning for the poorest and most troubled country in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Haiti’s own history is a 200-year-long, nightmarish lesson of the inevitable failure of any political system that is not founded on the greatest of commandments — loving your neighbor as yourself and loving God with all of your heart.
From Haiti’s beginning as a rebellious slave state that won its freedom from the French in 1804, its leaders have fomented racial and class warfare to advance their own interests. Like a boiling pot in which the people never really melt together, Haiti’s ruling class has used chaos to control the populace and enrich themselves.
The result has been, for two centuries, a violent and unstable society, one in which the most vulnerable — the uneducated, the women and children — have been crushed into generations of poverty.
Even the political perpetrators of Haiti’s instability have not been spared in the violence. Since 1804, Haiti has had 55 presidents. Only nine of them have completed their term in office. The rest have either been assassinated, overthrown or committed suicide.
Many observers thought it ominous that one of the country’s most notoriously bloody presidents, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, returned to Haiti Jan. 16 after 23 years in exile.
Last year’s earthquake fundamentally upended Haiti’s segregated society. Before the quake, Port-au-Prince’s poorest residents stayed largely in disease and crime-riddled ghettos like Cité Soleil.
Located in the muddy, swampy flatlands near the Bay of Port-au-Prince, Cité Soleil is an area so dangerous that it is avoided by Haitian police and ruled by armed gangs. In contrast to the squalor of Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s moneyed citizens live high above the slums in the foothills of the mountains ringing the city and the bay.
In suburbs like Pétionville, wealthy Haitians enjoyed the city’s only private golf course, the Club de Pétionville, trendy restaurants and Western-style night clubs, all behind the security of armed guards, gated communities and razor wire.
Then came the quake. As the nearly 1.5 million Haitians who were left homeless by the disaster poured into Port-au-Prince, the boundaries between the haves and have-nots vanished. The city is now, nearly from top to bottom, a mind-bending patchwork of tent and tarp settlements, home to millions of poor Haitians. These settlements transformed suburbs, like Pétionville, almost overnight.
The U.S. 82nd Airborne converted Club de Pétionville into a tent city and field hospital. World famous and expensive restaurants like Muncheez responded to the cry of hungry Haitians by cooking and giving away all of their food in the days and weeks following the earthquake. On the one year anniversary of the quake, Muncheez gave out 3,000 meals along with kits of soap and water purification tablets.
People ‘more human’
Bishop Pierre-André Dumas, head of Caritas Haiti, puts things in perspective: “What has happened in Haiti is that the quake has deepened the Haitian spirit. Some people, after the quake, have become more human, more open, deeper. It is now the responsibility of people who have discovered, through the tragedy, the lessons of humanity and communicate those to others.”
While Bishop Dumas acknowledged that some, in reacting to the quake, have become more isolated and self-focused, the opportunity exists for Haitians to restart how they relate to one another and, by doing so, transform Haitian society.
Many working for the recovery of their country have an intuitive understanding of what the bishop is getting at, an understanding born largely from the fact that they are alive, when they just as well could be dead.
Leaning across his cluttered metal desk at the headquarters of FFP, Clement Belizaire, project director in Haiti, recalls the day of the quake: “I was sitting right at this desk when the quake struck, and do you see what is above me?”
Belizaire points a finger up at the heavy concrete ceiling some eight feet over his head.
“That,” he says, “could have collapsed on me.”
“Psychologically,” Belizaire muses, “I think that Haitians are now closer to God. There were some who, right after the quake, were saying that it was God’s punishment. But to be alive today, after Jan. 12, is God’s blessing.”
A year ago, he told the Associated Press hundreds of Haitians dropped to their knees with prayers of thanksgiving at an FFP distribution of rice, beans and other supplies.
The proper take-away from the disaster, Belizaire told Our Sunday Visitor, is a right understanding of what surviving the quake means:
“Those of us who are alive have been chosen by God to serve. Every Haitian should feel responsible for the well-being and future of this country, for our children and grandchildren.”
E-Power’s chairman Rouzier sums up the opportunity, and challenge, for Haitians to remake their country: “Everything we do [in rebuilding our country], has to go through a Christian, moral authority, one that teaches the communities that we are in, that everything that they receive comes through Christ freely, and therefore,they have to give of themselves as freely.”
Jeff Gardner filed this report from Haiti.