By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Editor’s Note, this is the first of three-part series comparing Cuba with Haiti
HAVANA, Cuba – The first thing I noticed when I landed at the airport in Cuba is the ubiquity of the 1950s American-made cars. Then I quickly realized how clean the air and ocean is, and how the streets are void of trash. The place is spotless and even in the countryside, peasants have trash disposals to ensure that towns are not overran with garbage.
This is a far cry from Haiti, where soot, trash and a putrid smell hits you instantly. Cuba and Haiti share many similarities. Both countries have been the subject of punishing embargoes from the United States and Haitians have been moving to Cuba since the turn of last century, largely to work in the sugarcane fields throughout Cuba. The eastern province of Oriente, the heart of Afro Cuba culture is decidedly Haitian influenced.
But the comparison ends there. While Cuba ushered in a Communist dictatorship that is still in place, Haiti chose a series of right-wing dictators that have driven the country to the brink, where we still find ourselves politically unstable even after years of a transitional democracy. The latest Haitian electoral impasse is yet another example of a country adrift.
Of course, comparing countries is not an exact science, nor even an art form, because no two countries are exactly alike as histories tend to be strikingly different, despite the countries proximity to each other.
In late October I spent a week in Cuba with colleagues from the New York Press Association visiting this capital city and other parts of the island. It was my second trip to Cuba with the first one in 1996 when I was a reporter with the New York Times. At that time, Cuba was a depressing and bleak place. The U.S. punishing embargo was stronger than ever. It isolated Cuba even more because a few years earlier, the country had lost its major trading partner, the Soviet Union, after that federation’s collapse and its own economic malaise.
Cubans had nothing. Supermarkets were eerily empty and some basic spices were lacking, rendering the food uncharacteristically bland. Cubans now referred to that time as a “special period,” and credited those hard times as the basis for turning the country around. Despite it all, Cuba developed a tourism industry that is now attracting more than 3 million people a year. It is poised to lure even more tourists as the Obama administration opens relations with the country. JetBlue and other airlines are poised to offer direct flight from the United States to the island nation in the next few months. American investors are circling around and people in Cuba are waiting with excitement for this opportunity.
So it begs the question why is Cuba so clean and Haiti so dirty? The answer is that during the Fidel Castro regime, Cubans learned to love community and country while Haitians learned to love self and self. So Haitian’s houses, no matter how modest, are relatively clean. But Haiti’s common space, streets, oceans and air are polluted with no end on site.
In Haiti, people urinate, litter and pollute as if it is their God given right. The weak central government is paralyzed to take action. Laws are not obeyed under the guise that people are poor and fining them for violating the laws is somehow governmental abuse.
The Rev. Fares Larosiliere, the priest at the Church of Seven Pains in Fessard, an hamlet outside of Laboule, puts the Haiti situation very well and is keen on saying that “On ne doit pas confondre la pauvrete avec la malproprete,” which means that Haitians should not confuse poverty with dirtiness, or just because we are a poor country doesn’t mean we have to be a dirty country.
And so as this government – like Cuba did 20 years ago – continues to push tourism as the centerpiece of its economic development, it is more urgent that it finds a way to enforce laws that ensure a great deal of cleanliness throughout the country.
Haitian officials must remove old cars that are belching pollutants in the air, creating a public health and environmental disasters that will cost the government in real money instead of the political blowback they may encounter if they take serious actions.
The government must undergo a massive campaign to get people to stop loitering, provide ample trash bins and enforce laws and if they don’t exist, create fines for those who violate the rules.
I truly believe these achievable steps should be one of the first priorities of the incoming government in February. People will visit Haiti and will return to a clean environment. Dirt and grime offends everyone, even those who are condemned to live in such squalor. It is time to turn around the dirtiness of the country. The investment is low but the return is extremely high.