It is Haiti’s most powerful and recognizable symbol — the very embodiment of Haitian identity. Now the National Palace, almost toppled in the cataclysmic January 2010 earthquake, is coming down.
“When I took office, I said that rebuilding the Palace was not a priority for me,” President Michel Martelly said Wednesday in a ceremony on the palace’s once-manicured grounds. “Time has now come to take a look at buildings that were destroyed in the quake and that embody our national pride and our will as a people to always keep our head held high.”
Located on the plaza of independence heroes near downtown Port-au-Prince, the once magnificent white concrete structure with its columns and imposing domes, has long been the most powerful symbol of the Haitian state and presidency. But after the devastation, its shattered domes and crumbled columns had come to symbolize the disaster.
While Haitians agree that the palace is iconic, the president’s decision is being met with criticism and debate. Many are questioning why the demolition is being done by a foreigner, namely, actor Sean Penn through his charity organization J/P HRO.
Haitians have taken to the radio and social media. While some argue that as a measure of national pride, Haiti should shoulder the responsibility of demolishing and rebuilding its own palace, others say Penn’s involvement simply solidifies what many believe — that the country is incapable of addressing even its most basic needs and has no other choice but to allow foreigners to lead the way.
“Sean Penn tearing down the National Palace is a reflection of Haiti’s vanishing sovereignty,” said Daly Valet, editor of Le Matin newspaper in Port-au-Prince. “The Haitian people have lost control over their destiny. If the international community and their NGOs have succeeded in one thing in Haiti, it is making Haiti anything but a real country with a respectable state.”
Ilio Durandis, who lives in Boston and engaged in a lively Twitter debate in English and Creole over the decision, agreed.
“The demolition and/or reconstruction of public buildings are matters of national interest, national security, and national governance,” he tweeted. “It’s one thing to help those that a national government cannot take care, but it’s different to hand over the government to a charity. Sickening.”
Jean-Junior Joseph, a political blogger, said the demolition could easily be handled by Haiti’s Ministry of Public Works, or the state-run Center for National Equipment. In the days and weeks after the quake, CNE had proposed tearing down the structure using government workers for $25,000. In fact, one Broward-based firm seeking to win Haitian government contracts had loaned CNE two specialized excavators to work on demolishing the National Palace, parking them in front of the mansion.
But the demolition never happened. Meanwhile, former Haitian President René Préval, fearing national backlash, turned down an offer by France, Haiti’s former colonial master, to reconstruct the palace, which was built by U.S. naval engineers during the American occupation. The architect was Georges Baussan, a Haitian who had participated in a national competition to design the palace.
“Now, a century later, the Haitian federal government lacks the dignity and even the financial and human resources to have children of the nation do even that,” Joseph said.
Damian Merlo, a presidential spokesman, said the demolition will be “an initiative of the Haitian government.”
“The vast majority of people to be hired to do the work will be Haitian,” he said. “The government of Haiti is studying various options as to what would be built to replace the National Palace.”
Merlo said there is no contract between the government and J/P HRO, which is donating the project to the government.
“What we have is a letter from [The Haitian Institute for the Preservation of the National Heritage] authorizing J/P HRO to conduct site surveillance and demolition activity,” he said.
As for how the charity got involved in the first place, he said, the topic came up in a meeting with Penn while he was discussing his charity’s work in Haiti.
“Penn mentioned that his organization [J/P HRO] could provide the engineers and equipment to do the demolition at no cost to the government,” Merlo said.
Martelly said the demolition, which will begin in coming days, represents a fresh start for the country.
“Today, we say to all other people in the world that despite all the forces and disasters blowing on Haiti, we will forever be a strong people, a proud people which, as our ancestors did, will always rise up in the middle of the battlefield and scream ‘Forward!’” he said.
Former Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour, who is among a handful of Haitian architects who have worked on either restorations or construction projects at the palace that includes a presidential apartment, said Penn is just the latest foreigner being tapped by the Martelly administration to lead Haiti’s reconstruction to the dismay of the country’s architects, engineers and contractors.
A Dominican firm was tasked to construct a new parliament building and a Taiwanese entity is said to be involved in the construction of government ministries, Delatour said. Meanwhile, a plan to reconstruct downtown Port-au-Prince that would have involved Haitian architects, has been put on the backburner.
“It is a sorry state of a nation that today says the symbol of the reconstruction of the country should not be in the hands of prominent Haitian architects and engineers, who themselves have been recognized by the international community,” Delatour said.
“This particular government does not seem to have any trust or confidence in the ability of Haitian artists, professionals and institutions to steer the reconstruction of the country,” he added. “The logic from them being, the different professionals and institutions that participated in governing the country for the past 25 years have failed and have not managed to deliver any product. That is a very shortsighted view of what has been done.”