While my family passed through the slums of Port-au-Prince the other day after visiting my wife's ancestral village in Haiti's countryside, something else was happening 1,500 miles away: the annual Met Gala, the Super Bowl of the fashion industry.
Some of the most fashion-forward looks of the night, held at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosted by Vogue's Anna Wintour: Zayn Malik's Robocop-reminiscent metallic arms, Taylor Swift's silver fembot, Kanye West's coloured contacts and Lady Gaga's fishnet stockings and 10-inch heels.
The theme: future glam.
After walking the red carpet, attendees dined on baby white asparagus with sturgeon caviar, wild striped bass with California dill sauce and green apple sorbet on a spun-sugar nest with rhubarb compote.
From the vantage point of the poorest country in the hemisphere, the analogy wasn't hard to arrive at: we are the Capitol.
In that fictional high-tech city described in the Hunger Games trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, the ruling class of the nation of Panem dine on luxurious meals, exhibit outrageous style and undergo plastic surgery -- all while the rest of the land starves for bread.
The Capitol is a stew of extravagant excess, extreme inequality and stylish insouciance. Its residents aren't necessarily evil -- just deeply ignorant of the level of suffering outside their borders and insulated by lives of ease and abundance.
We rolled on through Port-au-Prince, encountering pockets of garbage and smoke and poverty so extreme it seemed to punch you right in the face. Our SUV's tinted windows were rolled up tight, since my children might "look like money" to those in the encampments, our driver advised.
At that moment, tweets about the Met Gala were rolling in.
"I'm really excited to get our first best-dressed at the Met... This Gala is like the Grammys of style!" tweeted Kanye West. "Unapologetic fun," tweeted Madonna. "Me I'm back in the NY GROOVE," tweeted Lady Gaga.
Unlike Panem, though, in our world there is not just one Capitol, but multiple cities of excess. A few days earlier at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., tuxedoed diners began their meals with diver scallops, topped with sweet potato mousseline, caramelized corn and espelette cream.
They followed that with steak au poivre, joined with honey- and orange-infused shrimp. To finish up, desserts like strawberry shortcake, dolce de leche and chocolate mousse, along with miniature French pastries. The cost: $3,000 a table.
Deep in the mountains of Haiti's southwest where I had stayed for a week, the menu was -- shall we say -- more limited. In tourist areas, young orphans and stooped grandmothers sidled up to visitors, hoping to strike up conversations and share in our meals.
Most North Americans would hardly think of ourselves as existing in luxury, as we live paycheck-to-paycheck ourselves, struggling to get by.
But luxury is a relative thing, and probably not what you imagine it to be.
To be sure, these are broad-stroke generalizations. There are rich and poor within the borders of Haiti, just as in any other nation. In Port-au-Prince, tin-shack shanties sit a stone's throw from leafy neighbourhoods dotted with gated mansions and Land Rovers.
And most North Americans would hardly think of ourselves as existing in luxury, as we live paycheck-to-paycheck ourselves, struggling to get by.
But luxury is a relative thing, and probably not what you imagine it to be. In my wife's village, luxury might mean continuous electricity. In that town, it comes on for a few hours a day -- or not. It's usually cut off by late afternoon, when most people could really use it. No one seemed to know why.
Luxury might mean a paved road, or drinkable water coming out of taps, or a hot shower, or a WiFi signal. Or a supermarket packed floor-to-ceiling with an astonishing array of food -- like, say, any random Safeway.
Many Haitians have economic problems that are not just theoretical, but existential -- getting enough food and water to survive the day. Meanwhile, the economic problem identified by the likely Republican presidential nominee? Deport the least advantaged and most vulnerable elements of society -- and build a wall to keep them out.
A very Capitol-like solution, no?
It should be stressed that Haiti is much more than a tragic fable. It is a place of stunning natural beauty, of remarkable human resilience and a showcase for creative survival. Impressive strides were made under previous president Michel Martelly -- patching infrastructure, improving safety, developing tourist-friendly resorts.
And yet: As I left Haiti, new friends came up to me in whispers, asking me to bring just a few dollars the next time we visited, for the school fees they couldn't afford for themselves or their children.
For my own society, it all made me not a little embarrassed. How would you even begin to explain something like the Met Gala and all the boldface names dripping with couture and diamonds?
As readers of The Hunger Games, we were all appalled by the Capitol's casual greed, and the unforgivable ignorance of the privation all around it.
By that same logic: What opinion should we have of ourselves?
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In 2010 I walked through buckets of bleach to disinfect my boots before entering and leaving the St. Marc cholera ward. The ward is still there and it is still receiving patients—196 admissions so far this November 2015 and two deaths. The trends this year are tripled compared to last year. 19,949 cases and 170 deaths occurred countrywide in July 2015, as opposed to 7,739 cases and 56 deaths in July 2014. One must remember that these are cases that made it to reporting centers and hospitals. It is suspected that many more incidents go unrecorded in remote regions. Official counts change rapidly and cholera does not discriminate between the old...
...or the young. Know also that this hospital does not have enough supplies; not enough rehydration fluids; and too few rapid detection tests. Millions and millions of dollars sent to Haiti and a few boxes of rehydration fluids stand between these souls and the morgue. As of June 30, 2012, $2.3 billion has been provided to support long-term reconstruction activities in key development pillars identified in the five-year United States Government (USG) Haiti strategy. (Source: USAID)
Graphic assembled by Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. See data report.
Locked gate in Caracol at the employment kiosk for USAID's flagship project at the nearby Caracol Industrial Park. Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd.― Korea’s leading garment manufacturer is the designated corporate anchor tenant. USAID provided $43.5 million in direct support for the Industrial Park. Foreign investors were promised the moon.
As a result, the employment numbers at Caracol’s anchor tenant facility have been under intense scrutiny and criticism. The Korean Sae-A (S&H Global) employs 7,027; 4,976 are women. The only remaining evidence of the Clintons is this golden plaque on a community school. Up to 60,000 jobs have been promised in the industrial park, not all in the garment industry.
No visitors allowed inside. The $300 million, 590-acre park, opened with many promises in 2012 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Clinton. Where are the Clinton's now? The total number of people working at Caracol at the end of September 2015 was 8,648. 40-60,000 jobs were promised at the PIC.
The Caracol-EKAM settlement was originally projected to provide permanent houses to approximately 3,750 to 4,500. Where were the workers supposed to live? In fact, no one with experience in that massive of a building project stepped forward, and as the future would unfold, the Potemkin village was crumbling before it left the drawing board. Then there was the sticky issue of payment. This was not free housing, and garment workers would be expected to pay a monthly mortgage as well as utility bills. 331 workers from Caracol live in homes built by USAID at EKAM.
This woman was fired because she took two days to go to a doctor in Port-au-Prince for what amounted to a stress-induced illness. It takes a day to drive back and forth IF you have a car. Korean employers did not care that she had endured unwanted sexual advances, supervisors screaming at her to "work faster," and fists pounded on tables if she failed to meet production. Still, all she wants is her job back.
This development of 750 300-400 square foot homes experienced cost overruns due to design changes (Haitians wanted more than 200 square feet to live in), labor disputes and protests, according to a report by USAID’s Inspector General.
..along with foundations that are less than two years old. Would you pay rent here? The pay of about $5 a day at the Korean factory is the minimum wage.
Earlier this year, USAID’s inspector general found that the project, which was originally estimated to cost about $53 million, ballooned to $90 million. While the price tag grew, the project shrunk. Indeed, the plan had originally called for building 4,000 houses by 2012, but as of July, only about 816 houses have actually been built. This man's house floods every time it rains.
Neighborhoods are still struggling to repair to third world standards
Bel Air is a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. It was hard hit by the earthquake and the poverty is palpable.
2013 guesses of camp dwellers at 171,974 does not include all three camps: Canaan, Jerusalem, and Onaville. See report from Ayiti Kale Je. "Three years after its star-studded launch by President René Préval, actor Sean Penn and various other Haitian and foreign dignitaries, the model camp for Haiti’s 2010 earthquake victims has helped give birth to what might become the country’s most expansive – and most expensive – slum."
With a slum of this magnitude, clinging precariously to mountain and hillsides, if another earthquake were to hit Haiti, the toll could eclipse the 350,00 of 2010. The threat of mudslides in a heavy rain or hurricane is ever-present.
"Circumspect" (Wary and unwilling to take risks in analysis) Download the report here.
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