Newly installed solar-powered street lamps stand as a beacon of hope, lighting up the rocky terrain as idle bulldozers collect dust along the lush mountainside.
In a nearby village, a new public square slowly rises out of the red dirt, but local cooks working at a poorly financed community restaurant struggle to keep hunger at bay.
Nearly 11 months after the Haitian government launched an emergency intervention on this island five miles north of mainland Haiti in response to a Miami Herald report about the deadly migrant smuggling operations from its shores, elements of change are starting to emerge.
“There is a little bit of hope,” said Clemond Francois, 43, standing on the beach in the seaside village of Basse-Terre, which has no roads. “What we didn’t use to see, we are starting to see. There is heavy equipment that they have brought onto the island to build roads even though we here have yet to see them build a road.”
After years of being abandoned by multiple governments, villagers on this fabled island — long a popular launching point for migrant smuggling to the Bahamas in hopes of eventually reaching the United States — are quick to grasp any signs of progress. But desperation again is starting to mount because of the slow pace of change, the lack of sustainability and uneven distribution of government social programs. Projects stand unfinished; promised jobs haven’t come.
‘ONLY WAY OUT’
It is only a matter of weeks, villagers say, before the perilous journeys on the open seas, which had ceased, start again as they usually do in December.
“Our only hope are the smuggling operations. That is where our future lies,” said Ronald Fores, 24, looking out to sea where a group of shirtless men struggled to fix a damaged wooden sailboat tilted on its side. “The country doesn’t offer anything.”
Three times, Fores said, he has tried to escape this island’s grinding poverty aboard a wooden sailboat only to be apprehended by foreign authorities. On his last attempt, in December 2013, he ended up in Cuba. He was en route to Miami, he said.
“And I will still take the risk,” he said. “This is the only thing that provides a way out. Without the smuggling operations, everyone will die.”
As Fores speaks, others nod their head in agreement as barefooted children play against a backdrop of wooden boats littering the shorelines and dotting the sea.
“If we aren’t dead, it’s because God has spared us,” said Evenson Forest, 36, a father of two and subsistence fisherman. “We have no doctor, no nurse, no health center, no potable water.”
Last year, dozens died in crossings launched from the island’s shores as unscrupulous boat captains and trip organizers, referred to as “managers,” preyed on villagers’ desperation. Once more, the turtle-shaped island’s unpatrolled coastline had become a popular jumping-off point for clandestine migrant-smuggling operations, and almost every home in Basse-Terre had lost someone at sea.
Though romanticized in novels for its 17th century reputation as a pirates’ haven from which French and English buccaneers launched their attacks, the island in recent years has been ravaged by hurricanes, a persistent drought, grinding poverty and a Coast Guard policy barring its most prized possessions, the wooden sailboats, from U.S. waters because of safety concerns.
With no visas being given to mariners, no commerce, no rain, life was bleak.
A day after the Herald article was published, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe ordered that 1,000 food kits of rice, beans, cooking oil and agricultural seeds be trucked in from Port-au-Prince. He also formed an emergency task force.
Basse-Terre residents say those most in need didn’t receive any of the kits, and they accuse Mayor Rolin Joseph of distributing most of the food to partisans in the more populated town of Aux Palmistes. They also accuse Joseph of preventing Lamothe from visiting with them when he came here in February.
Joseph declined to comment.
After the visit, Lamothe, in a nationally televised live cabinet meeting, tasked cabinet members with providing him with a plan to improve conditions on the island of 45,000, where four out of 10 households were living in extreme food insecurity, and 13,000 out of 20,000 school-age children weren’t enrolled, according to his own government’s assessment.
The Economic and Social Assistance Fund (FAES) announced a 27-point, $2 million plan that included creating seven community restaurants serving a total of 3,500 meals a day, the distribution of more food kits, a credit program for 200 female merchants and the creation of 1,000 new jobs through a sanitation program.
The government also said it planned to distribute 2,000 kits of agricultural seeds, 1,000 fishing kits and 1,000 goats. Its tuition-free education program for children and adult literacy program for 6,750 mothers also was to be expanded. Telecom giant Digicel was asked to construct a public school for 300 children with all the furnishings. The company completed the project in four months in the main town of Aux Palmistes.
Months later, Lamothe’s office announced that Carnival Cruise Lines’ parent company had signed a letter of intent to develop a new port on the barrier island.
Residents say many of those promises have not come to fruition.
FAES head Klaus Eberwein, tasked with carrying out the government’s plan, said they have delivered. Things haven’t moved as quickly as some would like, he said, because some projects such as the goat distribution are purposefully being phased in, while the road construction has been delayed because of budget issues and a workers’ strike.
“We have the money. And on Monday or Tuesday, the equipment will start to work and start rehabilitating all of the existing roads and tracing new roads,” Eberwein said.
The Senate refused to approve the budget after Lamothe declined to appear before them to defend it; President Michel Martelly published it in October in the official government register.
The delay, Eberwein said, also has been due to the lack of a socioeconomic survey to help identify the poorest of the poor. That survey, put out to bid, will start on Dec. 1, he said.
“While we are waiting, we have a given a lot of things,” he said, noting that 57 percent of the plan has been completed, including the literacy program. “For instance, we have given more than 8,000 food kits. … We also hired 2,800 people out of the whole island.”
Eberwein said the long-term development people crave cannot be forged with government money.
“The country has a lot of poverty, and you cannot reach every person. The expectations are so high that I understand their frustrations because we made a lot of promises,” he said. “That special plan was a short-term operation to make some social appeasement and start some long-term investments.”
Ralph Brossard, FAES’ special representative, said the government is committed to the island.
“I want to see the island develop,” Brossard said, noting his desire to install a bank and a factory to produce peanut butter “and sell it all across the country in bottles marked Île de la Tortue.”
“I am creating projects, and I am looking for projects,” he said, adding that in the seaside village of Cayonne, next to Basse-Terre, “we want to build a port, we want to have customs offices.”
“On the island there are a bunch of cars, motorcycles that do not have plaques and are illegal,” he said. “There is a huge problem here with people not wanting to pay taxes.”
For the government to receive taxes, residents say, it has to provide more than unfulfilled promises.
In Basse-Terre, where mothers still mourn children who died a year ago this month after an overcrowded 40-foot sailboat capsized off the Bahamas, stranding passengers for four days without food, residents say they have benefited little from the government’s emergency plan.
They complain that parents are still being asked to pay school fees even with the tuition waivers, and so far there have been no signs of the goats or even fishing kits.
“That light pole is all we got,” said Fores, pointing to the lone streetlight, now a community gathering spot. “They sent road equipment here and they’ve been sitting here for months, not doing anything. That is not development. Sending bags of food isn’t development either. That’s not what we are looking for.”
Government observers and critics say the frustrations are understandable. Not only are the social programs not based on sound development principles, they argue, they are targeted assistance aimed more at trying to placate certain populations rather than helping them grow out of poverty.
“There is a lack of coherent development strategy,” said Claude Beauboeuf, a former program manager and chief economist for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Haiti.
The food kits and free education “may be better than nothing, but all this remains social peanuts given the scope of poverty and hunger here,” he added.
Sebastian Edwards, a former chief economist for Latin America at the World Bank, said aid needs to have a two-pronged approach.
“Humanitarian assistance is of essence in emergency cases. But in the longer run, we need concerted programs that focus on increasing the local population’s ability to create jobs and become productive,” said Edwards, the Henry Ford II distinguished professor of international economics at UCLA. “It is fundamental that these programs are not hijacked by bureaucrats and that they don’t fuel corruption.”
Like Fores, James Major also has tried three times to escape this island’s hopelessness and, like him, ended up back in his dirt-strewn shack after being apprehended.
After telling the Herald earlier this year he was prepared to take his chances again despite nearly dying in the Bahamas incident, the unemployed father and husband now says he’s had a change of heart.
Anticipating change was coming, Major and his wife earlier this year formed a ready-to-work labor force consisting of 200 able-bodied men to help build the new roads the government promised. Five months later, nothing.
“The mayor has never called,” Major said.
Several miles up a steep hill at the top of the mountain where solar lamps now light up the trail, there is more hope than frustration.
In the rural town of Mawouj (Mare Rouge), workers feverishly rush to finish construction of a public square, the island’s first.
“It’s a savior for some of the people,” said Joseph-Liverdieu Dorcieus, 49, an assistant mayor. “It employs 15 to 20 men a day.”
But not far from the construction, the remnants of a new outdoor market stand idle. In the opposite direction, 72 first-graders sit inside a single, dilapidated classroom in a donated building that serves as the public primary school.
Dorcieus said the community has seen other benefits. There is an increased police presence, and agricultural seeds have been distributed to farmers. Still, a drought earlier this year has made farming a challenge.
“This is the season for planting, but there is a lot of hunger in the community,” Dorcieus said.
Local officials are no better off than the population, some of the country’s poorest, and can’t give what they don’t have, he said.
As are the people of Basse-Terre, Dorcieus also is no fan of the food handouts.
“They don’t want kits,” he said. “They want jobs.”
Inside a dusty yard, five women are busy preparing a meal of yellow grits and rice. Three oversized steel pots brew on a wood fire. The meals are supposed to feed 500 people, but the daily government-issued rations aren’t enough to serve the 300 who will soon line up with their plates.
“Sometimes when school lets out, you get a lot of kids stopping by looking for food and they can’t find any,” said Decesse Louima, 58, manager of the Ede Pep restaurant in Mawouj. “The rice, for instance, will be finished before they arrive.”
On the surface, the concept, similar to a soup kitchen, seems like a good idea: The government provides the dry staples, which the women cook and sell for the equivalent of 21 cents a plate.
However, the rations are not enough, says cook Luizida Jorilien, 58, and some days those seeking food can’t even afford the 21 cents, forcing them to give the food away.
On the rare days when all of the food is sold, the proceeds aren’t enough to cover the daily expenses, the women say. They include $4.25 for a drum of non-potable water, $4.78 for cooking wood and $53.19 on seasonings. The government provides $42.55 for extras, such as meat, but the women say it’s not enough to cover their costs.
When the Herald visited in October, the women said they had yet to be paid their monthly salary of $127 since the restaurant opened on April 25. Also, they owed $425 in rent for the house they use, money that FAES was supposed to pay.
On Nov. 12, FAES paid the women for four of the seven months they were owed, Louima said, but “the house still hasn’t been paid.”
“The owner kicked us out, and we’ve been shut down for almost a month,” he said. “Just now, I received three phone calls from people in the community asking me when the restaurant will reopen because the population is suffering. They are hungry.”