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.