Cité Soleil is a flat, dense slum built out of cardboard and tin on Port-au-Prince's western shore. Children play in the sewage; working-age men and women sit in the shade, escaping the searing midday sun, waiting for something to happen; young boys catch seagulls and pigeons with nets, and bring them home for dinner.
Since the mid-1990s, armed gangs terrorized the local population and even drove the local police out, making the slum an absolute no-go zone for officials and development aid workers. Taming Cité Soleil was vital to stability in the capital. That made it a priority for the country's largest international aid donors—the U.S., Canada, and France—who focused on security to lay the groundwork for development.
Shortly after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in 2004 (under pressure from the U.S. and Canada due to a sharp rise in organized violence) the United Nations created its Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) under Security Council resolution 1542, with a mandate to restore Haitian civil society and to rebuild government institutions like the Haitian National Police, among other goals. So far its most notable success has been reducing kidnappings in Port-au-Prince and disbanding many of the gangs operating out of Cité Soleil.
“The problem of public security was dealt with solely as a security problem, not as a political problem. We believe in imposing control over criminals, even by force” said Carlos Alberto Dos Santos, who was MINUSTAH's Force Commander until this spring. His troops targeted the gangs from poor slums like Cité Soleil, which had been used and bought off by political rivals over the last decade.
But not everyone approves of MINUSTAH's plan for peace, security and police reform. Critics such as Patrick Elie, a Haitian sociologist and former defense minister, say the UN mandate is unrealistic: "If we just accept the dictate of MINUSTAH or the U.S. or Canada, we're going to hit a wall in about 5 or 10 years." According to Elie, the UN plan to revamp Haiti's police with a yearly budget of $120 million will become too costly for the country in the long-term. But above all, Elie says he's worried that MINUSTAH's vision for security is coming at the expense of rebuilding infrastructure, reducing poverty and creating jobs. "If you don't deal with the socioeconomic problems, and all you think about is how many more policemen you're going to have, and are you going to have an army that can go down in the shantytowns with tanks—if that's the way you see it, you're going nowhere very fast."
MINUSTAH made a series of incursions into Cité Soleil since 2004, leaving an unknown number of dead gangsters and “collateral victims.” In early 2007, it took MINUSTAH forces three months and some 800 arrests to deal a crippling blow to gangs in the slum. Since then, the neighborhood has been relatively quiet, and there have been fewer kidnappings on Port-au-Prince's streets. Within weeks of that operation two years ago, the United States announced it would contribute $20 million to fund development projects and create jobs in the city's largest slum.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged to carry out the mission. “What we're trying to do is change the environment or the community enough so that other people can come in and work that otherwise would have been shut out; our larger goal is to bring in to Cité Soleil the large international donors, and the World bank when the time is right,” according to David Becker, a USAID official focused on security issues
The bulk of USAID's assistance to Cité Soleil is going to paving roads, to rebuilding the police station and to providing access to entrepreneurship and leadership training and micro-credits. But several parks and basketball courts built with USAID money and MINUSTAH coordination all sat empty. These and a handful of paved roads haven't made up for the basic services—housing, waste disposal, electricity, clean water—that more than 300,000 Cité Soleil residents lack.
With a new administration in the U.S., and former President Clinton now the UN Special Envoy, there is hope that the country will be a priority for the international donor community. This year, MINUSTAH renewed its commitment to Haiti for another term, while the international community committed to another $3 billion worth of projects, many of them focused on reconstruction after the hurricanes and storms. But back in Cité Soleil, one can hear the rumblings of a push for political independence that MINUSTAH, USAID and much of the aid-funding establishment would rather ignore.
Jacques, a man in his mid-thirties, said he was happy with some of the work done by USAID and MINUSTAH. He and a dozen other residents led me to their communal toilet—an abandoned, bullet-ridden shell of a cinder-block structure located right next to their homes. The stench was overpowering. "They've been cleaning the ditches, street markets and the sidewalks," he said, pointing down to his own feet. "But if you ask me what it is we really need here, I would tell you it's quite simple: better-built homes and toilets."
I could tell his complaint had been voiced a few times before, but perhaps had fallen on deaf ears. Jacques is aware that without an education and without the ability to make money he has no chance to get out of poverty. He knows that most aid projects won't change his life radically, and that the government isn't likely to step in to do its own job. So what is a young man to do in Cité Soleil? He can play dominoes with friends and stay out of trouble…and wait for better times ahead.
*Ruxandra Guidi is a guest blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is an independent journalist based in Austin, Texas, and her work can be found at Fonografia Collective
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.