Cap-Haitien has become a bigger draw for cultural and leisure travelers seeking to enjoy Haiti’s charms, especially as Port-au-Prince falls further into the hands of dangerous gangs. But for how long can Okap serve as a get-away?
The first time I visited Cap-Haitien was in 1991, shortly after Jean Bertand Aristide was elected president. There was an air of optimism blowing throughout the country, and it seemed like better days lay ahead.
I found Haiti’s second largest city charming and rather small for its population. The cobblestone streets were narrow and, oddly enough, the entrance of the city was rather grubby. But its elegance was unquestioned.
The Capois are a welcoming group, but they harbor a slight resentment of the folks from the capital, whom they say look down on them even though their northern city is the cradle of Haiti’s patrimony, home to the Citadel and majestic Sans-Souci Palace.
To me, their attitude was classic “second city” complex in the same way that Chicagoans feel that New Yorkers look down on them, real or imagined. It is a world phenomenon, where the people from the larger city just refuse to show any deference to their smaller counterpart.
Since then, I have visited Okap — as the city is popularly called — many times for work, to admire the ubiquitous Gingerbread architecture, a legacy of the French, and enjoy the beach. Its food is unique, with djon djon and peanuts being a staple of the cuisine, making for delicious fare. Their poisson gros sel is so delectable, you might bite your fingers chowing down on it.
In the last year or so, as Port-au-Prince falls apart, Okap is experiencing a sort of renaissance and is poised to become the grand ville that people from there have always insisted that it is. Perhaps the city might finally get the admiration that it so desperately craves.
Last month, the Port-au- Prince Jazz Festival organizers announced that the event will be moved to Okap to avoid the violence and chaos that has engulfed the capital city. The popular Dîner en Blanc fete was also held in the northern city as well this year.
To me, the diaspora, Haitian cultural impresarios, event organizers and residents flocking to Okap, pretending that all is well in the country, are misguided and shortsighted. The problems in Port-au-Prince cannot be bypassed. They have to be addressed squarely because if they continue without governmental and civil society’s intervention, they will metastasize like a cancer and spread throughout Haiti’s 10 departments.
What ignoring problems gets you
This attitude of ignoring problems is what got us here in the first place. There is no running water, we can get bottled water. We have no electricity, let’s order generators from Miami. The roads are impassable, that’s what SUVs were built for.
Over the last three decades, Haitian leaders of all ideologies have come up with one bad solution after another. The one that stood out above all was the odious prescription peddled by the Group 184, led by Andy Apaid, a garment factory owner turned politician. That group convinced some progressive sectors in Haiti and in the diaspora that forcing Aristide into yet another exile was a wondrous idea as the country was poised to celebrate its 200th anniversary of independence.
Those of you who have followed The Haitian Times over the years know that neither this publication nor I are Aristide’s supporters nor foes. But I was confounded when it became clear that the group’s primary mission was to sow disunity at a moment when we should have been celebrating one of the greatest accomplishments in history: The first successful slave revolt in the Americas.
Throughout the large protests that took place then, the group leaders exclaimed with a straight face that if Aristide was out of power, it would take them no more than a year to give Haitians a new Haiti. At the time, I tried in vain to convince my diaspora friends that Group 184 was a duplicitous bunch that didn’t have Haiti’s best interests. Their primary concern was to line their pockets with the mighty U.S. dollar.
By now, my friends have realized this, but it’s too late. The Haiti they promised almost 20 years ago obviously never materialized. Clearly it has gotten worse. But they were able to get some legislation passed in the U.S. Congress giving Haitian garment exporters tax breaks. It was never about Haiti.
Okap could be the next target
The gangs, or more accurately, the warlords, have exposed the successive government’s inaction when it comes to decentralizing the country. The Capois are not the only ones who resent Port-au-Prince’s stranglehold of the country. It is not only the seat of government, but also the seat of everything.
Anyone in the provinces who needs a birth certificate, passport or other government-issued document must trek for hours to the capital to obtain one. Until recently, a flight out of the country also meant traveling to Port-au-Prince before boarding a plane to the final destination. It got so bad that many people refer to Haiti derisively as the “Republic of Port-au-Prince.”
As a result, people from the provinces and rural areas have migrated to the capital for decades, choking a metropolis that was built for half a million people. Currently, an estimated 3 million people live in the capital’s metropolitan area.
The city’s infrastructures are medieval and have not been significantly upgraded since colonial times. There is no sewage or water system. People are literally living on top of each other, making residents vulnerable to all sorts of communicable diseases.
In due time, the Haitian warlords will figure out a way to isolate Okap and other large cities around the country, as they have done with Port-au-Prince, unless we make real change.
Where will the diaspora and the remaining elites go to enjoy themselves then? I don’t know, but it’s not going to be anywhere in Haiti.