Morally Repugnant Elite, or MRE, is a phrase I learned from an American Embassy worker over a cup of tea at an old, historic hotel in the heart of Port au Prince. It appropriately describes the divide between the rich and poor here. Labor is literally dirt-cheap and the wealthy wallow in the woe of their neighbors. In addition, there is another elite class that benefits from the sorrows of the many. NGOs, (Non-Governmental Organizations) primarily are funded by donations to help the poor, mostly live a pampered life on lush tropical retreats and are whisked between their appointments in air conditioned SUVs. The dichotomy between the words spoken by these charity workers and their actions, amongst the starving, is startling. Tens of millions of dollars alone have been spent for the fleets of 4x4s that bear all of the world’s famous foundation logos.
After three years of living in Haiti, it is hard to return to the United Sates. Despite being one of our closest neighbors, it is sadly in many ways 50 to 100 years developmentally behind us. As a proud American born and raised in New York City, it embarrasses me that such a place exists a short boat trip away. Not far from Cuba whose boat people are accepted as political refugees on our shores, Haiti’s escapees are usually returned to their dungeon of poverty. The reality shift of the living conditions is a shock to my senses traveling in either direction.
In the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, wealth flaunts itself, protected behind high walls. Ringed with razor wire and guards that screen any who approach, there is a huge divide between these people and the majority who live on the equivalent of $2 a day. After living and working with the people, I have been taught that it is not the people outside the walls that one should fear, it is those within them. Creole the language, created by the enslaved population of the “Jewel of the West Indies” back in the 1700s, is still spoken by the vast majority of people here. Unfortunately for this majority, the official language is French that makes sense only for the people that want to keep them in the dark.
In many regards, Haitian people are the most polite people in the world though they live in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. When someone greets another with a “good morning” on the street, it is considered quite rude not to respond in kind. Though most people eat only one meal a day, they would share it with you, without hesitation. Chickens, pigs, goats roam free in the streets of Port au Prince as they do all over the country. Still, I have never heard of a chicken or other animal being stolen by a hungry belly. Dogs and cats who also populate the streets and are as thin as the humans, never attack the grazing creatures that walk along side them. Everyone basically behaves well.
When the rare theft does occur and if the thief is caught, the penalty is harsh and meted out by the community itself. One night, I was awakened at 2am to the repeated shouts and screams of “Vole, Vole.” Jumping quickly out of my tent to look down onto the alley below, a group of men were dragging a guy into the middle of the street battering him with blows using sticks and pipes. Vole is thief in Creole and the accused tried to steal a car from one of my neighbors who also lives in a tent. If not for the intervention of a big guy, from a house across the street, this vole would have been killed in part because they found a ring of keys for many cars in his pockets. The thief never yelled out in pain or asked once that the beating be stopped though it lasted over an hour and a half before the police arrived. As the cops picked up the bound man to toss him into the back of their pick-up, he then pleaded loudly for mercy. As they drove off and the crowd who had gathered began to disperse, I could hear the young thief’s pleas fade into the distance.
Within the harsh conditions that I have witnessed and experienced, I have much respect for Haitians who can remain generous in the face of great hardship. Americans have much to learn by their example. I can remember something Mother Teresa said when she visited New York City in 1997, that here she was finding a deeper kind of poverty than she knew in Calcutta, “a poverty of Spirit.” Spirit can provide the strength of will to survive when there is nothing. The Human Spirit that I have had the pleasure to live alongside has nourished me with hope for our world’s future.