What Haiti's presidential palace means
By Lee Hockstader
Standing in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince, the palace is a vast, gleaming, white confection, an otherworldly symbol of power in a country where power is regarded with awe, reverence, envy and fear. In Haiti, whose political stability is always iffy, the risk is that the broken palace will be equated with the breakdown of any semblance of order.
That is a dangerous thing in a country where years of political upheaval and spasms of violence have only recently given way to a period of relative stability. If Haiti is to respond effectively to what may be its most devastating humanitarian disaster ever, it will need not only urgent and substantial international assistance but also a government that can operate the levers of public administration.
Built during the U.S. Marine occupation of Haiti in the 1920s, the presidential palace seems almost a mirage in a city of mean, sprawling slums, rickety tin shacks and jury-rigged infrastructure. Its public rooms are pristine, its sprawling grounds immaculate, and beyond its wrought-iron gates are broad boulevards flanked by the national police headquarters and other instruments of government power and prestige.
As a reporter covering Haiti 20 years ago, I saw the crowds descend on the palace gates again and again -- furious, dangerous mobs in periods of chaos; joyous, dancing throngs to celebrate the rare democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the now-discredited populist priest-turned-politician. Through the Duvalier dictatorship and the years of turmoil that followed, the palace was the focal point of intrigue, speculation, anxiety -- and also, intermittently, of hope.
In the days and weeks ahead, there will be more immediate worries than the palace: how to rescue, feed, shelter and care for the survivors of this cataclysm, which has deepened the misery of the hemisphere’s most blighted country. Also, how to pay for all that. Here’s hoping that amid the coming trials, the Haitian government of Rene Preval and its international backers are able to keep order and project a sense of guidance without the building that has been an icon for authority for so long.
| January 13, 2010; 11:53 AM ET
Categories: Hockstader | Tags: Lee Hockstader
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