This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
By Sam Bojarski
For nearly a century before the 2010 earthquake, Haitian presidents lived in an ornate palace at 6110 Avenue de la République. Jacques Bingue, an active Diaspora member and chief technical officer for the energy development organization Group Citadelle, said Haiti’s former National Palace rivaled the White House and even Buckingham Palace in its opulence.
Like the 19th-century fortress Citadelle Laferriere, the building stood as a symbol of Haiti’s sovereignty and independence.
“It was one of those things that Haitians were very proud of because it was designed by Haitians in the past,” said Ilio Durandis, a Haitian American who served as a dean at the Universite Notre Dame d’Haiti from 2014 until last year and now resides in Boston.
The grounds that once contained the National Palace tell the story of Haiti’s enduring and turbulent history ‒ one marked by foreign interference from the outset to the present day. French governors of the former Saint-Domingue colony occupied the first structure on the grounds. After the success of the 1804 revolution, Haiti’s first president, Alexandre Petion, took up residence there.
The palace would be completely destroyed and rebuilt twice between 1869 and 1920, during times of political unrest. Georges Baussan, a Haitian graduate of the Ecole d’Architecture in Paris, designed the most recent iteration, in 1912. During the 1915-1934 United States occupation of Haiti, the Army Corps of Engineers finished construction.
From 1920 until 2010, the two-story French Renaissance structure ‒ made of white-painted reinforced concrete and featuring an iconic domed entrance pavilion ‒ housed leaders ranging from the reviled Duvaliers to Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The 2010 earthquake that claimed the lives of about 250,000 Haitians left the palace in grave disrepair, with the second floor, main hall and staircase almost completely demolished. Pieces of concrete and rubble lay strewn across the palace grounds.
The fate of the palace became tangled up in the politics of aid and reconstruction. For two years, as international assistance flowed to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, it seemed that the palace might be rebuilt – certainly the government had prioritized its reconstruction. But the palace ultimately was demolished, with the help of a private charity run by actor Sean Penn, and now plans to build a new government residence are unclear.
Despite Haiti’s historic reliance on foreign assistance, the government itself has rarely been the beneficiary of this aid and this may have sealed the damaged palace’s fate.
Foreign aid and reconstruction
For more than two years following the earthquake, the government conducted business in temporary structures, while executives resided elsewhere. Current President Jovenel Moise has lived in the Pelerin 5 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince for much of his term.
After the earthquake, many wanted a Haitian-led effort to rebuild the palace, according to Durandis. But Haitian institutions saw little of the aid that came in, and much of the foreign aid Haiti did receive remains unaccounted for.
More than $9 billion from foreign governments, multilateral institutions and private donors flooded the country in the two years after the earthquake, three times the government’s revenue during that period. Just 6 percent of this aid went to the government.
The largest chunk of money ($6.43 billion) came from multilateral or bilateral institutions. Of this money, just over $582 million went to the Haitian government, with about $37 million going to Haitian NGOs and companies.
Most of the US. aid flowed through United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which disbursed more than $2.13 billion in contracts and grants for Haiti-related work. Only 2 percent of that amount, or $48.6 million, went directly to Haitian organizations or firms ― according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
An organization called the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti (CIRH), run by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, directed a large portion of the reconstruction aid.
“The problem is there (was) not transparence in the management of the fund. So, corruption was the norm,” said Enomy Germain, an economist who works as a professor at the Center for Planning and Applied Economics in Port-au-Prince.
Germain said the aid did not do enough to rebuild Haiti but that the national palace itself “is a matter of willingness” and was not one of the projects CIRH oversaw.
“It’s clear that at the moment there were a lot of other urgencies that people had to take care of so this was not considered to be a priority,” Durandis said of the palace.
In the weeks following the earthquake, a state-run organization offered to tear down the palace using Haitian workers, for $25,000. Then-President Rene Preval did not accept this offer, nor did he accept an offer from France to reconstruct the palace.
In the end, the administration of President Michel Martelly chose to have the charity organization J/P Haitian Relief Organization, led by the American actor Sean Penn, tear the palace down in 2012, at no cost to the government. The organization, which could not be reached for comment, was founded in response to the earthquake and subsequently began raising money through fundraising events. It now goes by the acronym CORE.
“I think most people were not happy about it, most people wanted the Haitian government to take the lead and actually have the palace rebuilt with Haitian money,” Durandis said of the foreign-led demolition.
An effort to rebuild the palace never materialized, likely due to financial obstacles, and Durandis said government communication about the process was minimal.
Jake Johnston, a research associate at CEPR, said the government’s inability to act after the earthquake is the product of a history of foreign dependence. During the Duvalier era, multilaterals and other organizations chose not to work directly with the government due to mistrust, creating a parallel state. As a result, many public service functions are still in private hands.
“Over time, you’ve seen how that really has eroded the state,” Johnston said. “So when there is a crisis, the government is not in a position of strength to actually respond.”
A question of priorities
In December of 2011, Martelly famously declared Haiti “open for business,” alongside Bill Clinton.
At the time, many of the displaced from the earthquake were still living in tents outside the capital, while the damaged palace had not been demolished. Martelly’s focus on attracting foreign investment and the image he sought to project could have hastened the decision to tear down the palace.
“For them, it was better to have (the palace) torn down and show the image that Haiti is in the stage of being rebuilt, although final plans, the architecture, the money to rebuild it, those things were probably never finalized,” Durandis said.
After taking office in early 2017, Martelly’s successor Jovenel Moise wasted little time announcing plans to rebuild the National Palace. Moise even launched a reconstruction commission composed of Haitian architects and historians.
The government would soon announce a contest, inviting local and international architects to submit designs. Clement Belizaire, director of the Construction Unit of Housing and Public Buildings (translated UCLBP), told Le Nouvelliste this past July that four firms had been chosen to participate in the contest’s final phase. However, the final selection of a design had to wait until the ratification of a new government.
Moise has struggled to appoint the necessary cabinet members and approve budgets. The ratification of the last prime minister he appointed, Fritz-William Michel, was delayed indefinitely by Haiti’s parliament this summer.
UCLBP could not be reached for comment.
Le Nouvelliste reported that a new palace would cost at least $50 million. While the financing mechanism has not been decided, Belizaire said he has consulted with several Diaspora groups about funding options.
Bingue, who grew up in Haiti and makes frequent trips to the country, said he doubts the government will receive the necessary support from the Diaspora anytime soon, noting the lack of trust in the current government.
Durandis agreed, saying that in light of the Petrocaribe scandal and other issues, “the trust is just not there, and the Diaspora doesn’t have an appetite for something like that.”
He also mentioned that past government efforts to raise money from the Diaspora, specifically the taxes on international calls and wire transfers, have not gone over well.
While Bingue acknowledged the beauty of the former palace, he questioned the need for an extravagant palace for the president to conduct meetings and meet with foreign dignitaries. The country, he added, has more pressing issues.
Bingue said he would rather see investments in basic public services like hospitals, schools, clean water and electrical infrastructure, so the country can climb out of poverty.
“In general Haiti has very, very meager resources, and those resources have to be used to give basic services to the population and also build an infrastructure to create wealth,” he added.
Emphasizing the urgency of Haiti’s situation, Bingue said the country continues to grow poorer by the day. The value of the nation’s currency has declined markedly, from less than 75 gourdes to the dollar in October 2018, to over 95 just one year later. Living standards continue to decrease, with basic necessities like water becoming increasingly expensive.
Haitians continue to express outrage at the political and economic situation of the country. In addition to political corruption, protesters have directed their anger at the lack of public services, despite the abundant post-earthquake aid the country has received.
“You can easily understand that the earthquake rebuilding effort couldn’t benefit … the Haitian people,” Germain said. “The country is still paying the cost of corruption.”
Against this backdrop, plans to rebuild one of Haiti’s most prominent national symbols remain in limbo. While Haitians protest the lack of rebuilding progress after the earthquake, the grounds at 6110 Avenue de la Republique remain empty. And that, say some, is as it should be.
“For a Haitian to tell me that the priority is a national palace, I’m like ‘you need to recalibrate your scale of values.’ Haiti needs hospitals, Haiti needs schools, Haiti needs water pipes to bring water to people, just very basic things that (Americans) take for granted,” Bingue said.