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Haiti's political earthquake

Mired in chaos but buoyed by its people, the country awaits a new president.

January 16, 2011|By Amy Wilentz

In Port-au-Prince and its environs, more than a million people are living in sordid, makeshift encampments vulnerable to flood and epidemic. These camps, which look temporary to outsiders, seem strangely permanent to those familiar with Haiti and its shantytowns, from which much of Martelly's support derives. Indeed, many of the shacks in the new camps seem more solidly built than the squalid lean-tos of stick and tin that were the architectural norm in the sprawling bidonvilles of the capital even before the earthquake. Meanwhile, a slow but steady cholera epidemic has killed thousands.

Among all this misery, the young, blond, carefree cadres of nongovernmental organizations skitter around in their SUVs, trying to fix a few small things. They start new orphanages; they feed a neighborhood; they erect a school; they make sure Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, gets from one event to the next. They go out to bars and restaurants in the better parts of town.

On the anniversary of the quake last week, the difficulty of the task ahead was clear. But the character of the Haitian people was also on display, and that in the end could be the nation's greatest asset, with competent and honest leadership.

At the destroyed St. Trinite church downtown, congregants sat under a temporary shelter and listened as the youthful church orchestra played Bach and Handel in the courtyard where many of their counterparts had been buried alive a year before. Along the national highway, hundreds of people wearing the white of remembrance danced and demonstrated in favor of Jesus and democracy.

And at a hospital in the countryside where foreign and Haitian doctors and experts manufacture prostheses and teach amputees to walk again, a young man who lost both legs in the catastrophe stood up, smiling, as a band played. Suddenly, a path was created for him by the crowd that had gathered to commemorate the quake. At a clap of the hands from one of his physical therapists, the man hobbled down two stairs and took off. Down the path he ran on his new legs, a bit winded but speedy. Everyone applauded.

The man panted, clearly pleased with himself, and then, to the crowd's surprise, he turned and ran all the way back.

Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier." She is a professor in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine and is currently working on a book about Haiti after the earthquake.

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