PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Four years after a major earthquake buried Haiti's capital and left enough rubble to fill five super domes, the country is slowly rising from tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have been relocated from camps that once housed 1.5 million.
But many challenges remain. Billions of promised aid remain outstanding, the country continues to be heavily reliant on discounted oil from Venezuelan and negotiations continue with neighboring Dominican Republic over trade imbalances and a controversial constitutional court ruling on citizenship for Haitians.
On the eve of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake’s anniversary, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, at the helm of the government for the past 18 months, talked with the Miami Herald about reconstructing a country on a shoe-string and other challenges.
Q: Four years after the disaster, where is Haiti?
A: I believe Haiti is a better place today, simply because we were focused on the people's plight, especially the people living underneath the tents. It was important for us to relocate them.
Q: Define post-quake Haiti today?
A: The country is in the midst of being reconstructed. We have seven ministries that are going up. We have a new parliament that's slowly going up. We have a country that's starting to believe that we can get back on our feet. We're starting to believe in ourselves that it can happen, and this, four years ago, was difficult because of the despair, the harsh situation. It was almost Armageddon.
Q: And today?
A: There is hope, and today we continue to build a society where Haitians can be proud. This is not an easy task, but we're doing our very best, under some very, very difficult circumstances.
Q: What are some specific projects people can see today?
A: Out of 3,000 social housing, we have 1,500 that were inaugurated. We have over 300 kilometers (186 miles) of roads that have been paved throughout the country. We have 10 new hurricane shelters that we are putting up. We have a new center for children, children who were on the streets. We have five new airports that are being either refurbished or built from scratch; two new ports...We are also focused on renovating neighborhoods. We've done 3,500 homes renovated in Jalousie neighborhood. In total throughout the country, we have over 5,000 homes that have been done.
Q: Jalousie has received a lot of attention — and some criticism — because of the government's recent face-lift. Homes have been painted in psychedelic colors. But it isn't just a paint job.
A: We paved 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) of road within the neighborhood. We put over 100 solar lamps for the people. We're doing a community health center, so it's a significant project.
Q: What are some other projects outside of Jalousie?
A: We have seven hospitals, 46 health centers, 191 communal (community-based) projects that went up last year. We are redoing two cultural centers; 22 sports stadiums throughout the country, of which eight of them are already done; 14 are under construction. Those of course are constructions that are needed for the country. We have so much more to do, but we have little means, and such little time to do it.
Q: How are the projects being paid for?
A: The small-, mid- to large-scale developments — those are mostly financed by Petrocaribe (Venezuelan oil program) and the public treasury. There is a lot that is also being financed by international cooperation.
Q: Is Venezuela providing any other assistance?
A: Besides Petrocaribe, the government of Venezuela is investing over $300 million in social housing, the civil registry, the music school and different other infrastructure, a hospital and other projects.
Q: Given the speculation about the future of Petrocaribe, what will happen if the discounted oil program goes away tomorrow? Does Haiti have a contingency plan?
A: The indications that we have is that Petrocaribe is being enhanced, an expansion of the agreement. If Petrocaribe were to go away, and we hope that it doesn't, we have our public investment budget that is significantly less than what Petrocaribe brings us, but it's something we can depend on for development. We have the World Bank, we have the IDB, we have USAID.
Q: How does Haiti plan to repay its debt to Venezuela?
A: They are allowing us to develop our agricultural sector, develop local production that they will purchase back from us.
Q: Your government has been criticized for the lack of transparency, with Petrocaribe being one of the main examples.
A: It is as transparent as it can be. Every single expense is posted, and every single dollar can be traced and singled out. This is a model we want others to replicate, where the funds go directly to the government and then we see what can be done with the funds. This is a model that we are preaching to others — to trust us, give us the benefit of the doubt, like Venezuela has done, so that we can move forward and rebuild this country.
Q: What other economic projects are in the works?
A: Haiti is looking at diversifying our sectors. We are building a new industrial park, for example, in the north of Port-au-Prince. The idea here is we have a huge amount of unemployment and we need to create jobs... It's been a challenge for every single government that has been in charge of the country. It's a challenge today, but it's one that we feel that we can meet.
Q: Caracol Industrial Park in the north is a $300 million post-quake investment that has been slow to attract the jobs and investments many had hoped.
A: We're looking at the ways and means to reinforce Caracol by fixing the port, by having sea access for goods to move; right now, they are going to the border; it's a difficult process. That also does not favor the growth of Caracol. Right now we have completed the runway of the airport of Cap-Haitien. That has taken longer than expected. We are finishing a temporary terminal so that we can access commercial airlines going straight to Cap-Haitien. That will help Caracol, along with the seaport.
Q: What is your assessment of the international community?
A: The international community has done a very good job in helping Haiti throughout the emergency period. A better job has to be done, however, for the second part because the first phase, the emergency phase is done... We have several billion that are still undisbursed that could be used to build hospitals; build, fix schools.
Q: How is your government putting Haiti on the path to sustainable development?
A: We need to continue with improving the security of the country, the ease of doing business so companies can see Haiti as an investment place and come with hard capital. One of the issues we are having is there has been a lack of trust in Haiti's stability and development.
Q: What are you doing to attract more businesses?
A: We have two laws in parliamet and also we are finalizing the reforms in the mining sector.
Q: Despite the progress in relocating people out of camps, the government continues to be criticized for forced evictions. What's the policy on evictions?
A: It's relocation that's done in a consensual way, a dignified way. Unfortunately, a lot of those camps are on private land. Sometimes the private owner, although we speak to them and try to appeal to their humanitarian side, go through the judicial system to get evictions; if they get the eviction notice, they enforce it with judicial assistance.
Q: But how sustainable are these camp relocations under the 16/6 housing program?
A: This is a huge undertaking as it is today, but it's worked so far in what it has done. We need to do more. This relocation has been a model also of cooperation between donors and the country in order to show that can work. When the donor community and Haitian people work together, we can bring relief to the people. This has been an incredible challenge. We are trying to do wonders with almost nothing.
Q: Why hasn't the Haitian government been more public on the Dominican Republic's ruling denying citizenship to Haitians?
A: The government has been very active in solving that issue in a diplomatic way. Haiti and the Dominican Republic are the only two republics that are sharing an island, so we have a unique situation with the Dominican Republic. We managed to have opened a dialogue as the only way to come to grips with the big issues that were affecting the country for the past 50 years. We made it public, our feelings toward this ruling: it was unacceptable, inhumane and steps needed to be taken to address it. However, we had to do it in a certain way to make sure it was a sustainable and successful strategy.
Q: How were the recent talks between Haitian and Dominican officials on the nationality ruling?
A: It was one where it was open, it was frank, it was direct. We put the issues on the table... Our intention is to leave no one behind, whether it's Haitian temporary workers or Dominicans of Haitian descent.... This is what we discussed with them, and this is what we feel we advanced on many fronts.
Q: Why doesn't the declaration issued after the meeting mention the nationality ruling?
A: This is the first dialogue of many others coming. We all know what the ruling says, and we all know that its an unacceptable ruling. We needed to focus on the next steps, the solutions and the steps that would be taken in order to come to a solution. It shows a willingness, it shows the clear intention of moving toward coming to support and aid of those of Haitian origin.
Q: If MINUSTAH (United Nations force) leaves tomorrow, is Haiti prepared to secure itself?
A: It's a work in progress. We are reinforcing the police, we are not done with it yet. We want to bring it to 15,000 officers; we have 11,000 now. MINUSTAH is doing an important job. They’re here and they are providing security to the country. Haiti is a safer place with MINUSTAH here. We know MINUSTAH is not going to be here indefinitely. The more we build up our forces, the more MINUSTAH builds down.
Q: Can Haitians expect legislative and local elections this year?
A: I said the year 2014 would be an electoral year. We have managed to publish the electoral law, which clears the way for elections to happen in the country. We opened a dialogue with the different political groups under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Then again it's time for Haitians, between Haitian politicians the government, civil society — let's put the real issues on the table and let's discuss them. We are a democracy, a vibrant one. We believe in elections and we want to see them happen as soon as possible.
Q: And your political future? Are you a presidential candidate?
A: I am not a presidential candidate. I am prime minister of Haiti.
Q: And how has that been?
A: My focus was helping the neediest and the poorest of this society. When I look at what we've done in 18 months, there is a glimmer of hope for tomorrow and I want to build on that.