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Haiti's elite hold nation's future in their hands

A few businessmen like Gregory Mevs will decide how -- or whether -- Haiti recovers from one of the worst natural catastrophes in modern times.

January 20, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — Gregory Mevs leaped from his silver, armored Toyota SUV and marched past the guards and mango trees into what serves these days as the center of the Haitian government.

He was ready to dispense a million gallons of fuel to the earthquake-ravaged capital. But the paperwork was not in order. He needed the Haitian prime minister's signature.

Ten minutes later, he had it.

Mevs can do that. He has the prime minister's ear. He hobnobs with people like Bill Clinton, George Soros and the chief executives of the world's largest corporations. He is one of Haiti's storied elite, a member of one of the six families that control the Haitian economy and have essentially called the shots here for generations.

They are light-skinned, multilingual entrepreneurs with a dismal reputation for profiting handsomely on the backs of the poorest people in the hemisphere. The actions they take now will prove decisive in how -- or whether -- Haiti recovers from one of the deadliest natural catastrophes in modern times.

"A lot of friends say, 'Get out, it's only going to get worse before it gets better.' But all of us have to be here," said Mevs, a solidly built, slightly balding man of 50. "We have to rebuild. There is no choice."

The rich do have a choice. They could easily pull up stakes and go somewhere else. The question is whether they will, or whether they decide to throw themselves into the (potentially money-making) business of reconstruction. As of Wednesday, the majority seemed bent on the latter, pledging to do what it takes to get Haiti back on its feet.

Some have described Haiti's earthquake as "democratic" because it scathed poor and rich alike. That would be an oversimplification.

The rich are never hurt the same way the poor are. Their capacity for revival, thanks to resources, private planes and visas, vastly outdistances that of the poor and middle class.

Certainly, however, they are suffering too. Their houses and offices also collapsed. Few, if any, of their members died, but there were injuries and the loss of friends and employees.

It takes people with Mevs' skills and wherewithal to get much of anything done in Haiti these days. What's left of the government -- every major institution was pulverized -- has essentially ceded important sections of the recovery operations to the businessmen. In theory, these businessmen report to a committee that includes members of President Rene Preval's administration, but most are acting very independently.

It has to be that way, they'd argue.

"We have, more than ever, a tremendous responsibility to help this country rebuild. We are needed," Mevs said. "I know people, I have access, I can get financing, I know how to negotiate."

Mevs' days are filled with all that and more. His BlackBerry buzzing incessantly, he rushes to hospitals to see how much gasoline they need, then gets it for them. He oversees the off-loading of tons of Dutch aid. He sets up computers for the provisional government, which is working out of a police station flying the Haitian flag at half-staff.

In Armani eyeglasses and Hugo Boss jeans, with a Mont Blanc pen in his shirt pocket, Mevs climbed into the armored SUV one day this week and escorted two reporters through some of the damaged parts of his empire.

The Mevs family owns all the petroleum storage facilities in the country, 30% of the Internet business, a 2.4-million-square-foot industrial park and a network of 50 warehouses for food and other material, among many other properties.

Mevs figures he lost up to $40 million at the wharf that his family owns, where most oil shipments are received. That's only a fraction of his financial losses, however. And when half the wharf fell into the sea, it took 54 workers with it.

Most of the elite are descendants of Europeans who came to Haiti, a nation founded largely as a slave plantation, in the mid- to late 1800s. (Mevs' grandfather came from Hamburg, Germany, in search of a rare breed of parrot.) They were -- and are, for the most part -- merchants. Their money is from commerce.

They control all the major sectors of the economy, from banking and telecommunications to apparel factories and food. They attend the French schools here, and they go to university in Miami. They vacation in Europe. They live farther up the hill that rises above the squalor of Port-au-Prince.

Haitians sometimes refer to them as the Bambam, each letter the initial of one of the six families. During tense times under populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when politicians stoked class warfare and pointed to the nation's egregious income gap, they were called MREs. Not after the packaged military "meals ready to eat"; rather, the initials stood for "morally repugnant elites."

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