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What Haiti's presidential palace means

By Lee Hockstader

Among the appalling, heart-breaking images of ruin and carnage emerging today from the earthquake in Haiti, few will be as shocking to Haitians as the partially collapsed presidential palace.

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.

By Lee Hockstader  | January 13, 2010; 11:53 AM ET
Categories:  Hockstader  | Tags:  Lee Hockstader  
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So, does this mean we need to send the president of Haiti one of our old FEMA mobile homes to replace the old double-wide, er, 'palace', that got wrecked?

Posted by: Heerman532 | January 13, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

It's bad enough when Haitians create disunity among themselves by retreading misinformation such as "Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the now-discredited populist priest-turned-politician." It's pretty clear you haven't been to Haiti in 20 years and have not talked to the people in the streets who would most certainly take offense at that comment.

I was also there 20 years ago but just got back last week from spending a month reporting from the capital. You are just plain wrong on that count.

Posted by: kp3123 | January 13, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

It has made a big difference to us in the DC region that the Pentagon was rebuilt (at least to external appearance) a year after September 11. And it is very regretful that Ground Zero is not yet the home of new buildings, although at least it has been cleared out and underground infrastructure repaired.

After reading this, I also think of rebuilding projects like the cathedral at Dresden (completed only a few years ago, bombed in WWII) and many buildings damaged or destroyed in the London Blitz. I hope that after the immediate emergency efforts and the desperately needed redevelopment, some private philanthropic foundation can help rebuild this palace as well -- if the Haitian people want it rebuilt at all. This should not come before helping people, but it should happen as well.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | January 13, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Replace a palace in a country where most of the people live in substandard conditions? Please! If we, the most generous people on earth feel the need to be magnanimous, let it be for the people and not the bloody politicians who bleed their people dry.

Posted by: marine2211 | January 13, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Was that the palace built by the dictator "papa doc" duvalier? or was that built by "baby doc"?

I say level it and start over.

Eliminate the vestiges of the dictatorship.

Posted by: Heerman532 | January 13, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

BIllions to rebuild the lives of the people
but not a cent to rebuild the palace.

Posted by: AnotherContrarian | January 13, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

The National Palace, as it actually known, must be rebuilt.

It is an historic part of Haitian nationalistic pride as is our White House.

The National Palace was not built by a dictator, it was built by the United States in 1918, designed by one of Haiti's most beloved sons, Georges Baussan, a local boy who studied architecture in Paris at the Ecole d'Architecture and later became a Senator. Bausson designed all of the country's renowned Port-Au Prince architecture of note, such as the beautiful Hall of Justice and the City Hall.

We must help the people first, but when the country is stable, we must also rebuild their national treasures.

[No dictator ruled Haiti during the building, unless you count the USA, we ruled Haiti from 1913-1930 until elections were held. We financed their original infrastracture, buildings, hosptials, schools, and roads]

Posted by: kristine246 | January 13, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

I have wondered if the 9/11 planes had hit the Lincoln Memorial or the White House, how our view of that tragic day might have changed. The symbolic power of a building, a structure, a place is great. It is, like all places, "just a place," but not really. It is far more. Amidst poverty cathedrals are built. The tension over whether or not it is a wise use of money is inevitable, and even necessary.

I will long remember how inappropriate it was for President Bush to use kelig lightgs infront of Lafayette's statue in New Orleans when the rest of the city was immersed in the waters of chaos. But he did not step foot into the stadium, and he did not row in the streets. There is nothing quite as disheartening as the inpropriate use of symbol. If the government of Haiti could, or would, be with the people it would be, or might be, a compelling thing. It would also be an endangered thing.

Just ask football teams. Do they wish to live with the people? No. They demand a new stadium. And so it goes.

Perhaps there can be a new beginning for Haiti and its people. And perhaps the plethora of aid groups that work so well individually can begin to work together for a common good, along with the Haitian government.

And, who knows, what might happen in Haiti just might happen here too. Maybe. Someday. It is, as always, so much easier to figure it out there than it is to do it here.

Posted by: Praytell1 | January 13, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

OMG!! Can anyone say "Ostentatious"?? God does have a way with equalizing the masses, doesn't he? No matter how much monetary wealth you have, no human being can escape natural disasters, disease, and death. I hope those in the Haitian gov't who raped this country and lived in luxury while oppressing their fellow countrymen are at the bottom of the body pile!

Posted by: kaevan26 | January 14, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Aristede was overthrown by a group calling itself the Cannibal Army, with the connivance of the French and American governments. I'm not sure how that discredits him. My impression is that he's still very popular with the people who don't count. So popular that is party was banned from recent elections.

Posted by: sjpatejak | January 14, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

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