Rubble of a Broken City Strains Haitians’ Patience

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With graffiti and protests, from sweltering tents to air-conditioned offices, Haitians are desperately trying to get a message to their government and the world: enough with the status quo.

The simple phrase “Aba Préval” (Down with Préval, a reference to Haiti’s president, René Préval) has become shorthand for a long list of frustrations, and an epithet expressing a broader fear — that Haitians will be stuck in limbo indefinitely, and that the opportunity to reinvent Haiti is being lost.

While few have given up entirely on the dream that a more efficient, more just Haiti might rise from the rubble, increasingly, hope is giving way to stalemate and bitterness. “Is this really it?” Haitians ask. They complain that the politically connected are benefiting most from reconstruction work that has barely begun. They shake their heads at crime’s coming back, unproductive politicians and aid groups that are struggling with tarpaulin metropolises that look more permanent every day.

“We’re going to be in this position forever,” said Patrick Moussignac, the owner of Radio Caraïbes, a popular station broadcasting from a tent downtown. “We could be living on the streets for 10 or 20 years.”

Government officials have repeatedly called for patience. And among American and United Nations officials, there is a sense that Mr. Préval and his deputies have become more engaged, putting in long days at an annex behind the damaged presidential palace.

United Nations officials now calmly predict that elections will take place by the end of the year, but no clear alternative to Mr. Préval has emerged.

But in the meantime, until the next government takes office? “We are in a period of perilous stagnation,” said Robert Fatton Jr., a historian at the University of Virginia who was born in Haiti but is now an American citizen.

Parliament is now essentially disbanded; power lies with Mr. Préval, his cabinet and a reconstruction commission led by the Haitian prime minister and former President Bill Clinton.

Haitians are not especially pleased. Freshly painted graffiti on main thoroughfares now declare “Aba Okipasyon” (Down With the Occupation) and call for the ouster of NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations.

Mostly, Haitians say they just want someone in charge, telling them what to expect. “The people need a response,” said Michèle Pierre-Louis, the prime minister under Mr. Préval until last year. Because the president has not told families in tents or business owners what they might receive to rebuild, she said, “they do not know where he is leading them.”

Missed opportunities are beginning to mount. Immediately after the earthquake, Ms. Pierre-Louis said, Haiti’s central bank should have guaranteed loans or loosened its collateral requirements to help small businesses trying to reopen.

Before Parliament closed, she added, lawmakers could have made it easier for members of the Haitian diaspora to invest — perhaps by easing rules requiring that joint ventures be 51 percent Haitian-owned.

That might have opened the country to more people like Alain Armand, 36, a Haitian-American lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is now trying to open several businesses here in Port-au-Prince, the capital, including a bed and breakfast.

Trying is the operative word, he said: “It costs $3,000, and it takes at least three months to get incorporated. There is no organized structure in which we, outsiders to NGO-land, can operate.”

Even within “NGO-land,” disappointment is settling in. Complaints about the government dragging its feet over decision-making are common. Reconstruction so far has mostly amounted to an emergency response in the form of plastic. About 564,000 tarpaulins had been distributed as of early May, enough to cover an estimated 1.7 million people; or laid out lengthwise, to run from New York City to past Albuquerque.

The tarpaulins are an enormous help, as the drenching afternoon rains begin, but they are they are not safe or strong homes. “In the beginning, we felt like it was fine for us,” said Gaela Rifort, 30, outside her tent in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. “But now, they are not enough.”

The urgent demand for more can also be seen in the perfectly formed piles of bricks that suddenly appear each day, like giant termite mounds, in the middle of major streets. Initially, rubble in the roads came from the earthquake; now it is a sign of property owners clearing their land.

Garnier Daudin, 69, a taxi driver who owns an apartment building tipped on its side in Carrefour-Feuille, a neighborhood in the capital, said he had no choice but to move it to the street. “I have renters,” he said. “It’s been five months, and the government hasn’t told me anything.”

Looking toward a nearby intersection, he added, “When we drop it there on the main street, the government will have to come get it.”

Or so he hopes. In many areas, piles that were once on the street have been pushed closer to the curb, and left there. One large mound on Route de Delmas has been walked over so many times in the past few months that bricks have been flattened into a dusty gray path — which runs by shoe sellers like Manoucheka Walker, 22, who said “the government left the pile with us” because “the government doesn’t care.”

Just behind her, on a rusty blue fence, a large “Aba Préval” had been painted in the bright red of the Haitian flag.

Reconstruction workers seem to be just as exasperated. The United Nations estimates that the quake destroyed 105,000 homes, and damaged 208,000 others, mostly in Port-au-Prince. That is a lot of rubble for the roads.

Indeed, when this reporter followed one of the new mango-colored dump trucks assigned to reconstruction, it rerouted around several of them, delaying its arrival at a canal where it collected trash pulled from the ravine to prevent flooding.

Haitian professionals like Frank St.-Juste, 48, an engineer who owns a construction company, had hoped for more. He said he thought the earthquake would lead to a more open, pragmatic government with stricter bidding procedures, urban planning and international standards.

Instead, he said he was being paid to clear damaged homes by a friend who has a contract with a nongovernmental organization that he declined to name. “It’s not the right way to do it,” he said.

At the time, he stood beside a backhoe that he owns, on a hilltop beside Fort National, which is one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the quake. He said his company was the only one assigned to the area. It was nearly dark and he was still working, but his temporarily broken-down backhoe and four trucks were hardly adequate for the densely packed neighborhood with hundreds of pulverized homes.

Asked how he chose which property to clear first, he said, “We have to start somewhere.” Later, like so many others, his mood darkened.

“There is no sense of priorities or sequencing,” he said. “There is no master plan.”