Behind chaos, violence, life somehow goes on

August 01, 1994|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The body lying face down on Rue Travail 3 at sunset was positioned in that sort of drive-by-shooting death-sprawl that has come to characterize so many news photos from here -- limbs akimbo, personal belongings scattered nearby.

There was no tell-tale blood around the body, so a passer-by tried lifting an arm. And suddenly the "victim" was resurrected, as if by the touch of a caring hand. Gilbert Fashon, 19, sat up in his filthy T-shirt and mustered a few words. "Sick and tired" was his rough description of how he had quite simply given up the ghost in the tropical afternoon and dropped to the pavement, out of money, friends and spirit.

A small bit of charity -- $3 -- squeezed into his hand seemed to offer new hope as he gathered his will and his belongings and dissolved into the teeming city to face another day.

As Haiti labors under a strict international embargo, Mr. Fashon is a symbol of the way this country always seems to adapt to hardship that has been as ever-present a backdrop here as the vibrant Caribbean.

Headlines out of Haiti are usually about hunger, chaos, violence -- but there is also a day-to-day social order by which 7 million people survive. As anywhere, Haitians try to earn money, go to market, entertain themselves.

The fabric of a normal life exists, even if torn and thin.

You can glimpse it in the gossip of the madam saras -- the ubiquitous street merchant women named after a noisy bird; the traditional pumpkin soup served at Sunday breakfast; the theater marquees advertising American movies; the radio reports of neighborhood soccer scores like the winning streak of a club named Baltimore; the newspaper feature about the young woman who won a color TV for buying the 7 millionth Panther brand condom (slogan: "Use a panther and don't score a goal"); and the year-end school exams that turn families to discussing where they will go for vacation.

Haitian survival runs the gamut from the grimly difficult to splendid comfort.

Vincent, an 11-year-old slum orphan, is an example of the kind of spiritual Darwinism that characterizes the poor in this country. If you're alive, you find a way to make it from meal to meal, or you die.

Like all poor children here, Vincent begs for money. From white outsiders, he begs for something beyond money.

"Rescue me," he requests.

But no one is going to rescue Vincent -- and he makes a life for himself in the fetid maze of the Cite Soleil slum. Possessing only a long T-shirt to cover himself and a green bucket, he hauls drinking water for 20 cents a bucket -- just enough to eat some rice every day and survive.

Duvalier's fall, Elie's rise

The fall of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, and the subsequent eight years of political upheaval, has led to the financial rise of Lionel Elie.

As foreign journalists flooded into the country for a more or less continuous stay since the overthrow of Mr. Duvalier, Mr. Elie -- a 40ish, unskilled but eager man -- moved from $25-a-day driving stints for cheap newsprint journalists to the full-time $100 a day job as "chief driver" for ABC News.

A somewhat traditional wild-eyed Haitian driver, Mr. Elie is proud of his exploits and boasts of his biggest job ever: going undercover for "Prime Time Live" as a Haitian cane-cutter in the Dominican Republic to videotape evidence of the virtual enslavement of Haitians on plantations there. He made a final harrowing cross-country escape by putting the videotape in his pants and abandoning the camera. For the dangerous mission Mr. Elie received $300 a day, he proudly recalls.

Political adversity has provided a lot of this kind of surprising productivity for many Haitians.

Take gasoline, for example. An intricate economic order has grown out of the Haitian embargo as smuggled gasoline flows to consumers and hundreds earn money to feed themselves.

Kuwait City -- as Dessalines Boulevard down by the port is now known -- is the central unloading zone for gasoline smuggled in 50-gallon drums across the Dominican border and then piled onto rickety trucks bound for Port-au-Prince. Fumes fill the air for blocks, and the crumbling asphalt feels saturated with gasoline where hundreds of small operators rush out to cars hawking plastic gallon jugs of fuel for about $8 each.

This business, in turn, has spawned its own subsidiary industry: funnel-making. Jacob, a man with a deformed torso but strong arms, works at a table in the Bel-Air slum pounding and shaping metal into funnels.

Jacob, who usually pounds out water cans and buckets for a living, estimates he has made about 1,000 of the gas funnels since demand revved up with the tightening of the embargo in June.

Funnels for sale are displayed along sidewalks all over the city. Ironically, most bear the logo "USA" on them, because they were made from the thin metal scraps of U.S. vegetable oil cans from humanitarian shipments.

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