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{The New Foreign Aid : Haiti}

The Benefactor

Dieuseul Lundi's native land is an economic shambles, sustained by emigre donors like him. With earnings from two jobs in Miami he supports dozens of friends and relatives, paying for food, funerals and much more.

April 18, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Saint-Louis du Nord, Haiti — An aging propeller plane skittered to a halt on a dirt runway. Nearby, an ambivalent greeting party had gathered to collect Dieuseul Lundi for the last bone-jarring hour of his journey home.

A nephew, Johnson Paul, had brought Lundi's four-wheel-drive Nissan with the cracked windshield. He resented his uncle's quarterly visits because otherwise he could use the vehicle as a taxi and earn a few dollars.

A cousin, Asemedi Alexis, a voodoo healer and avid gambler, had come to hit Lundi up for money to bet on the afternoon cockfights.

Jean Edner, a friend and business partner, wanted help reopening the idle cinder-block factory that Lundi helped pay for.

Since he left for the U.S. 33 years ago, Lundi has pumped tens of thousands of dollars back into Haiti through an extended family of at least three dozen people. On trips home, he resembles a one-man foreign aid program.

Alexis put an arm around Lundi's neck and patted his breast pocket, half in jest, looking for his cash. The wad of dollars was actually stuffed in Lundi's tan silk trousers, and the faces of his entourage shone in anticipation of getting their share.

There aren't many other ways to make money in Haiti, an economic basket case held together by remittances. Whereas some countries try to use money sent home by workers to create jobs and build a future, Haitians spend almost all of it on immediate needs. Its long-term effect is as negligible as a drop of water on a hot stone.

Handouts from 1.5 million Haitian emigres in the U.S., half of them in Florida, are estimated at $1 billion a year -- five times more than all foreign aid to Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. These payments amount to 2 1/2 times the national budget and at least 20% of Haiti's gross domestic product.

"For every single person who gets remittances from someone abroad, we estimate that at least 10 more benefit in the redistribution," Finance Minister Henri Bazin said.

"The money is mostly used for food, but also for rent, weddings, baptisms, funerals."

Lundi, 50, does not really expect gratitude. His relationships are built on a sense of obligation and the understanding that new demands will await him on every trip. On one of his visits, he gave half sister Saintilia Jean money for food. On a subsequent trip, he spent thousands of dollars on her funeral.

On this trip, he would be introduced to his newest child, 3-month-old Woodson, conceived on a previous visit. Lundi, a man of few words, would examine the child with a look that suggested more dread than affection.

"I don't know if Dieuseul will be able to help me much," confided the mother, Marie Claude Lully. "He told me he has 16 children. That's a lot to take care of."

Lundi's journey, like those of many who have fled Haiti in the last four decades, began in an overcrowded wooden boat at the port of Saint-Louis du Nord. He made his way to the Bahamas and then Florida. He settled in Miami, became a U.S. citizen and has earned a living working in fish markets and selling frozen seafood from the back of a battered Ford van.

Like many emigres, Lundi nurtures close ties to Haiti and says he would return for good if there were the faintest hope of national recovery. Instead, he stays abroad and sends home at least half his earnings to support an ailing mother, half a dozen siblings, children he has fathered by nearly a dozen women, and a coterie of cousins, friends and former neighbors.

"God blessed me with good fortune, and I have to give it back to Haiti," he said in English still heavily accented by Creole. "If I have two dollars, I have to give Haiti one of them. I have a lot of friends who are always saying, 'Lundi, I need this' and 'Lundi, I need that.' And I give it to them if I can because I know God will give it back to me."

The road Lundi and his greeting party took from the airstrip in Port-de-Paix to their hometown, Saint-Louis du Nord, is a canvas for those needs.

A ribbon-candy surface of mud mounds and sewage-filled craters, the road disappears altogether where it crosses the wide, gravelly mouth of the Rivieres des Negres.

Goats grazed at the base of desiccated banana trees. Pigs rooted in the muck for fallen fruit. Naked children stood in the doorways of houses built of mud, sticks, cinder block and corrugated metal, watching a procession of women with head bundles, laden donkeys, brightly painted buses and a few sturdy automobiles, all weighed down by staggering quantities of cargo and people.

A boy cycled past with dead chickens hanging from his handlebars, headed for the riverside market.

Saint-Louis du Nord has grown tenfold, to 70,000, since Lundi left, but it is just as poor.

"If it wasn't for the people who left, there wouldn't be any life here at all," said the mayor, Wilber Lafrance. Dependent on help from seven siblings in the U.S. to keep his small food store and kindergarten running, he brandished a wad of yellow transfer invoices attesting to the monthly $50 and $100 handouts.

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