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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 21, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson

Patrick Elie, a leftist sociologist who has been extremely critical of Haiti's elite, said the magnitude of the disaster may shake the wealthy out of their complacency. Several have spoken of feeling "humbled" by the ordeal.

"This crisis will separate those who can pick up and go from those with real roots, who are heavily invested in Haiti and whose survival depends on the survival of the country," Elie said.

As if to suggest the beginnings of a new Haitian world order, Elie was sitting outside the government's refuge next to Mevs' brother, Fritz -- an ardent Aristide ally wearing a Che Guevara cap next to one of Haiti's wealthiest men. They embraced.

Gregory Mevs bristled when a visitor referred to him as part of the cabal of families running the place. It's an unfair and outdated image, he argued. Years of dictatorship stifled any sense of civic duty, he said, but today's globalized economy means that entrepreneurs can no longer cling to colonial ways.

"My generation is between two worlds," he said. "We had to learn how to reach out, we had to learn to work with social responsibility."

Mevs' house, next door to the prime minister's, was damaged, and he and his family have been camping at a friend's house, sleeping on their lawn. His children, who were at home when the quake hit, watched in horror as an exterior wall collapsed and crushed the family gardener to death. Mevs' niece was among the people trapped at the Hotel Montana, a legendary salon for the Haitian elite and visiting intelligentsia that pancaked into a concrete mountain. Rescuers pulled her from the rubble.

As Mevs traveled about Port-au-Prince, he bounced between eagerness to rebuild and despair over the devastation. His chauffeur has been so traumatized, he said, that he has been in two wrecks in the last few days.

Mevs noted that Haitian construction uses a lot of pillars and concrete slabs to withstand hurricanes. No one was thinking much about earthquakes, he said. The gorgeously quaint slat-wood house built in 1911 that serves as Mevs' main office endured the quake undisturbed.

He acquired the armored vehicle with darkened windows and diplomatic license plates four years ago at his wife's request, he said. He was working a lot in Cite Soleil, the enormous slum that abuts some of his commercial properties.

The license plates speak to another quirk of Haiti's elite: Most have finagled posts as honorary consuls of any number of countries. It's sort of a status symbol, like owning the latest iPod.

Mevs is the official consul of Finland.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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