Haiti’s cultural capital a hub of Canadian involvement

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The epicentre of Canada’s post-quake relief efforts is a once-picturesque, Carnavale-crazy seaside city on Haiti’s south coast. Artsy Jacmel’s burgeoning tourist industry was supposed to be leading the country toward economic independence before the city was devastated by the earthquake – schools, hospitals, storied architecture and brand-new hotels flattened.

The port city of 40,000 has an obvious Canadian connection as the family home of Governor-General Michaëlle Jean. But it has also been a significant centre of Canada’s public- and private-sector involvement in Haiti for more than a decade. And the thousands of troops and millions of dollars in Canadian aid pouring into devastated Jacmel could be as strategic as altruistic.

For Fanes Boursiquot, however, Jacmel is simply “the most beautiful place in Haiti.”

Mr. Boursiquot, a Montreal resident, was born in Jacmel’s La Vallée neighbourhood and spent the first eight years of his life in Jacmel before moving to Pétionville for school. He can’t bring himself to watch the news any more; the images of devastation in his childhood home have become too much to bear.

“Everything was beautiful. … The water, the place, the people in the streets. It was all nice.”

Mr. Boursiquot spoke to his brother Antoine in Jacmel late yesterday afternoon. Antoine was lucky enough to escape the earthquake unscathed. But his house – like virtually every structure in the city – is in ruins. He and his family are sleeping in the street.

Asked if they are alright, he replied: “Yes and no: They’re okay, they survived. But they have no house, no food, no nothing.”

In the early 1990s, Jacmel’s port played a central role in Haiti’s largely successful attempts to skirt UN sanctions on petroleum imports after former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was first ousted.

More recently, it has been polishing its credentials as an international tourist destination: Choice Hotels International, owner of Comfort Inn, announced recently it would be extending the franchise to Jacmel.

Far smaller and less densely populated than Port-au-Prince, Jacmel has been called Haiti’s cultural centre: It has become famous not only for the stylized architecture that inspired that of New Orleans, but also for its wild Carnavale, its artisans and, more recently, an international film festival that gave rise to a film school for Haitian youth.

This week, Jacmel’s Ciné Institute has been shooting films of a more gruesome nature – corpses buried in rubble, the injured in makeshift hospitals and tent cities filled with the quietly desperate.

“All the decision-making centres are destroyed,” local politician Zidor Fednel said.

“The nerves of [government] departments are destroyed.”

The damage in Jacmel isn’t as intense as Port-au-Prince and the otherwise bucolic city hasn’t seen the same violence or lootings reported in the capital. But the smaller south-coast city has been comparatively ignored compared with aid-clogged Port-au-Prince, where the humanitarian challenge has been delivering and distributing the aid.

Stephen Baranyi, a professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, says it makes sense for Canada to base its beefed-up aid efforts in Jacmel: In the 1990s, Hydro Québec “essentially built their electricity generating plant.”

“Canada saw this as one of several regions of the country where Canada wanted to establish a presence. … I think that is part of the background in which you have to see this redeployment.”

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