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June 20, 2018

Five years after quake, Haiti struggles to reopen its doors to the world

Growing up on the Haitian island of Ile-a-Vache, Exerre Dieunest used to hate going to school in the rainy season. It was bad enough that there were no buses, but there were also no roads. He walked two hours each way from Kay Kok, and when the paths turned to deep mud, he could hardly manage the trek.

It’s different for kids today. Kay Kok now has a school, “and it’s thanks to tourism,” says Mr. Dieunest. Tourists came, saw the need, established a foundation, and funded the building of a school. Tourist donations also helped expand a local orphanage.

Ile-a-Vache residents see great potential in hospitality, but when the central government tried to launch a major tourism plan here in 2014, it sparked protests from locals who feared a land-grab. The tourism ministry has since achieved buy-in from much of the community, but now it faces another challenge: Keeping the confidence of investors as Haitian democracy teeters on the brink.

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Just over five years ago, Haiti looked relatively ripe for investment. Crime was low, there was a reprieve from anti-government demonstrations, and democratic institutions seemed to be functioning better than ever. Haitian and foreign leaders said Haiti was stable, and ready to grow.

That’s when a 7.0 earthquake struck the country, killing tens of thousands of people.

Today, Haiti is rebuilding, still mired in the poverty people had hoped to escape before the earthquake, and now trying to avoid a massive political upheaval – one that could scare off the very investors who could help the country develop. 

The prime minister was deposed in December, and on January 12 most legislators’ terms expire – with no one to replace them due to a failure to hold elections. Popular protests against President Michel Martelly have grown, along with fears he will rule by decree – unless Parliament approves on Monday an agreement reached Sunday night between President Martelly and opposition leaders.  

Ile-a-Vache feels far from the tumult of the capital, but its struggles may exemplify Haiti’s challenges in democracy and development. 

TRUST AND DEVELOPMENT

Ile-a-Vache is a 16-square mile jewel of an island, with rolling hills, paths connecting sweet cottages on a candy-colored bit of Caribbean Sea. But its residents – roughly 15,000 farmers and fishermen – say the government has continuously left them in the dark, literally, with no electricity or roads. Health care and potable water aren’t delivered by the government, and tourism remains at a trickle.

But this might change.

After the 2010 earthquake, a government came in with the motto, “Haiti is Open for Business.” The government wooed investors – with massive tax breaks and supportive infrastructure supplied by foreign aid – to take part in an industrial park and capital city hotels. They drew up plans for massive tourism developments, including one on Ile-a-Vache complete with roads, an airport, a port, a marina, 1,000 hotel rooms, and an 18-hole golf course.

The island was finally getting attention, but residents weren’t happy. In early 2014, protesters took to the newly carved roads. A presidential decree declared the island a tourism development zone, property of the government. Waterfront residents were driven from their homes without compensation and roadside dwellers lost fruit trees vital for their livelihoods. Riot police appeared on the island to back up the few officers already there.

But when the tourism minister met with community leaders, gave checks to those robbed of their land, and implemented projects for the community – like drinking wells, a community center, and subsidized community cafeterias – many residents began to show support for the government’s tourism plans, in spite of lingering fears.

An elderly islander named Myltha Boulot says there is no knowing whether or not the government will take her land, but when it comes to tourism: “That’s another thing entirely. If tourists come, they’ll give jobs to the poorest men and women, so people can survive.”

Yet now, if locals don’t block the tourism plan, would-be investors might.

Haiti has peaks and valleys of instability, says Mark Schneider, a long-time Haiti-watcher and senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. “I think we’re at a point close to a peak,” Mr. Schneider says, prior to Sunday’s agreement.  That is, if there is no executive-legislative agreement, Martelly might rule by decree, causing more protests, and possibly violence, Schneider says. In which case, “there’s no way for investors to tell their boards or financial backers that the situation is on its way to being resolved and they can go back to expanded plans for development.”

Pamela Cox, who was the World Bank’s vice president for Latin American and the Caribbean at the time of the earthquake, says when nascent democratic institutions fumble, everyone gets spooked.

“Any time there’s huge political uncertainty, it scares investors away,” Ms. Cox says, especially in countries like Haiti, where there’s a lack of domestic trust in the government, and likely civil unrest.

In the coming days, Haiti’s political leaders will signal to investors and constituents whether or not their country is on solid ground.

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Five years after quake, Haiti struggles to reopen its doors to the world

Woman found in Massachusetts home with dead babies charged with murder

BOSTON (Reuters) – A 31-year-old Massachusetts woman who authorities discovered living with the bodies of three dead babies tucked inside a closet in her rodent-infested house was charged on Tuesday with two counts of murder, prosecutors said.

The woman, Erika Murray, had been charged in September with crimes including fetal death concealment after police found the bodies of three dead young children in the home in Blackstone, Massachusetts, she shared with her boyfriend, Raymond Rivera, 38.

Rivera was arrested on Tuesday and charged with seven criminal counts including assault and battery on a child causing substantial bodily injury.

“This has been and will continue to be a difficult case,” Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. said in a statement. “Our investigators followed the evidence where it led.”

Police were called to the house, located in a suburb some 40 miles southwest of Boston near the Rhode Island border in August, after crying children were reported there. They found four children, ranging in age from three months to 13 years, who were taken into state custody.

All the children, living and deceased, were the offspring of Murray and Rivera, prosecutors said.

Attorneys for the two defendants could not be reached for immediate comment.

Authorities have since razed the house, which had been located just a half-mile from the local police station on a quiet residential street.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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Woman found in Massachusetts home with dead babies charged with murder

US rower robbed of food, passport near Haiti

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A U.S. man who recently rowed across the Atlantic Ocean to raise awareness about HIV testing was robbed on Thursday off Haiti’s north coast, authorities said.

The incident occurred when Victor Mooney began having trouble with his boat near the tiny Tortuga Island, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report.

Mooney, a Brooklyn native, was headed back to the U.S. from his trans-Atlantic journey but had diverted toward Haiti on advice of his U.S. weather router, which warned a storm was coming and that he needed to seek shelter. The 48-year-old had completed the 3,000-mile (4,800 kilometer) journey in June on his fourth attempt, a journey to honor a brother who died of AIDS.

Mooney said he saw several boats approach on Thursday morning and that people aboard them began yelling at him in a language he did not understand as they tied his boat to theirs.

“It was like mosquitoes,” Mooney said in a phone interview. “One came, two came, three came and they surrounded my boat.”

Once he was towed to Tortuga Island, Mooney said a group of people ransacked his rowing vessel.

“They just took everything,” he said.

Police agent Kenssley Derival said Mooney’s food was stolen, along with his passport, which he said authorities have since recovered.

Helping Mooney with translations from Creole to English was 33-year-old Emmanuel Milhomme, who lives on Tortuga Island but previously lived in Fort Myers, Florida. He said he was in the area when he saw the commotion and noticed the U.S. flag on Mooney’s boat and approached him.

“Where he came from, I don’t know,” Milhomme said. “It could have been worse.”

Mooney was staying at Milhomme’s house until authorities arrived. It was not immediately clear exactly when Mooney would resume his trip back to the U.S.

“It was a frightening situation,” he said. “Thank God there’s no bodily harm, but I want to go home.”

___

Associated Press writers David Caruso in New York and Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.

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US rower robbed of food, passport near Haiti

Adam Green puts wind in the sails of inner-city students

Adam Green has taken arts and crafts education to a whole new level.

In 1996, he founded Rocking the Boat, a Bronx, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization that blends youth empowerment and boat building. The organization works with young people challenged by economic, educational, and social conditions, and helps them develop self-confidence and the skills needed to achieve their ambitions.

Students work together to build wooden boats while developing skills like rowing and sailing, and learning about waterway conservation and community revitalization – all while learning marketable skills and gaining confidence.

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“There is an opportunity at every phase of our training process,” says Mr. Green, whose desire to launch the program came from personal experience.

Green had taken a semester off during his studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., part of which he spent serving on the crew of a sailboat as an environmental educator. He enjoyed the process of teaching children about the environment, but the experiences weren’t long enough.

“I was frustrated that we only worked with them for three hours at a time,” he says.

Later he took that experience into the classroom, volunteering his time at an East Harlem, N.Y., junior high school over an eight-month period. During that time the students constructed their own wooden boat from start to finish.

“It was just a thrilling experience to see kids actually have a reason to learn things, and a reason to care about the things they were being taught,” he says, emphasizing the practical nature of boat building and the tangible rewards. “From there, the idea grew and grew.”

Green founded Rocking the Boat, and the organization has since developed into a fully sustainable nonprofit with an annual budget topping $1.9 million, serving nearly 3,000 young adults and members of the community each year.

Throughout the semester, youths participate in Rocking the Boat during the school day or through the intensive after-school program. Sessions encompass everything from lessons about the Bronx River to basic rowing techniques and boat safety lessons.

The after-school program – with two groups of 40 students who spent two sessions a week with Rocking the Boat – includes more hands-on boat building and repair projects as well.

“It is just a great sight to see” – youngsters participating in a variety of activities both on land and in the water, Green says.

The Rocking the Boat staff includes three licensed social workers who provide comprehensive support to the students, assisting with everything from social development to college applications.

While freshmen and sophomores spend most of their time learning the basics, juniors and seniors add job skills development, Green says. Program graduates enrolled in a college or trade school may be hired as part-time program assistants.

Green said that he enjoys every aspect of Rocking the Boat.

“I do it because it is amazingly fulfilling,” he says. “It feels really good to do this work and have the impact.”

Jennifer Galvin, vice president of the board of directors of Rocking the Boat, says that the effect that the organization has had on young participants is indisputable.

“Adam gives young people undervalued life skills,” she says. “He uses boat building as a portal to change lives – not just Rocking the Boat’s student’s lives, but the lives of their families and the health of their community. Most of his students didn’t even know there was a river in [their] neighborhood, much less why they should care about it.”

The program helps participants achieve personal success while transforming the way they relate to the environment “and the way they view their role in the world as young adults,” she says.

• For more information, visit www.rockingtheboat.org. On Sept. 27 Rocking the Boat is hosting a special fundraising event, Rocking Manhattan, during which teams of rowers will undertake a full-day, 30-mile row around the island of Manhattan in traditionally built whaleboats. For more information, visit www.rockingmanhattan.org.

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Adam Green puts wind in the sails of inner-city students