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National Agenda : Haiti's Capital of Chaos : Port-au-Prince's new mayor stakes his future on the formidable task of remaking the city.

November 15, 1994|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It's a typical morning snarl on Boulevard La Saline, the key artery that connects the Haitian capital's seaport to its desperate daily commerce. Average driving time: two blocks an hour.

Thousands of pavement merchants sit cross-legged in the street, hawking stacks of mangoes, oranges, papayas, baseball caps, used clothes and polluted water by the glass, as battered trucks piled high with bags of sugar, flour and rice attempt to navigate around and through them, delivering goods to scores of illegally constructed warehouses--legacies of the strong-arm corruption that pushed the hawkers into the street during the past three years under Haiti's crooked, indifferent military rule.

Cars belch black smoke. Horns blare. Vehicles break down every few minutes. A wheel-less van inches through the mess, mounted on a wooden cart pulled by a single man.

The scene is a metaphor for the municipal madness of Port-au-Prince and its 2 million people, and for the staggering challenge confronting Mayor Evans Paul, who has staked his future, perhaps his life, on the task of transforming the urban nightmare into a daily life of, he says, "something more than anarchy."

Paul emerged from three years of hiding and occasional assassination attempts as the man considered most likely to succeed Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti's next president. But to do so in elections scheduled for late next year, when Aristide, under law, has to step down, Paul must first resurrect the capital from the ashes of dictatorship.

In short, the soft-spoken man who prefers open shirts to dark suits and impassioned rhetoric to urban master plans must deliver, and fast, in a nation of limitless expectations.

Paul must deliver jobs to a capital with 80% unemployment. He must create security in a traumatized city of slums where many of the dictatorship's murderous thugs remain at large. He must remove impoverished hawkers from the streets without the use of excessive force, bulldoze garbage dumps that have become homes to thousands of scavengers and reclaim parks where fountains have become bathtubs for the homeless.

And he must do so in a city that is flat broke.

Paul's task is a microcosm of what lies ahead for Haiti as a whole, after 20,000 U.S. troops eased its dictators into exile and brought Aristide and Paul back to power in the poorest nation in the hemisphere. With the bulk of the U.S. troops scheduled to pull out of Haiti before Dec. 1, to be replaced by a softer multilateral force, Paul and Aristide know they are fighting against time, working with virtually no resources and a limited reservoir of popular goodwill.

"In the short term, our deadline is Christmas," Paul said in a recent interview in his office at City Hall, a building ringed by U.S. Army concertina wire, rooftop sharpshooters and machine-gun nests. "We are used to doing the impossible, but now we're going to try to do the impossible before it's too late."

The fight will begin in earnest Monday at a two-day political showdown--he calls it a symposium--that Paul has spent weeks arranging. The goal is to enlist Haiti's rich yet wary private business people as the mayor's new partners in the future Port-au-Prince.

"The idea is to create a center for the promotion of Port-au-Prince," he said. "And we can't do that without the private sector. The city itself has nothing." City Hall, in fact, was looted down to the wiring and plumbing in the final days of the military regime--to the tune of nearly $2 million, according to the mayor's preliminary reckoning.

"There was absolutely nothing here when I got here," Paul recalled. "There was a typewriter ribbon without a typewriter. There wasn't a stick of furniture. The phones were gone. There wasn't even a sheet of paper. It was an utter disaster. And there wasn't a single penny in the city's accounts."

So out of sheer necessity, Paul turned to his least likely potential allies--the business people who tacitly or overtly supported the military regime that ousted Aristide's and Paul's populist governments three years ago and shot down their pro-democracy colleagues on the street, terrorizing the city's impoverished masses night after night until American troops descended on the Caribbean nation Sept. 19 under United Nations authorization.

The fallen military regime and some of its supporting business people are, in part, directly responsible for the problems Paul is now asking the elite to help solve. To illustrate, the mayor cited Boulevard La Saline, where the generals permitted helter-skelter construction of the waterfront warehouses in exchange for hefty kickbacks. The construction, in turn, forced hawkers into the street. The combination of sidewalk sales and warehouse construction was instant chaos.

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