CANAAN, Haiti — Evans Jean crouched under the shade of a mango tree, escaping the midafternoon heat, and watched a string of SUVs streak by on the road nearby. Behind the cars’ tinted windows were Western diplomats, government officials and Haiti’s President Michel Martelly.
Martelly, who was returning from a ceremony on the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, is facing the most acute political crisis of his four years in office. He is ruling by decree after an unresolved dispute with lawmakers, and the opposition has vowed intensified street protests, which kicked off late Friday morning.
But to Jean and many others in his impoverished community, the government shutdown is a distant event that he thought would have little impact on his life. When the earthquake struck in 2010, he lost both his parents, an older brother and a younger sister, and since then, he has fended for himself. He lives alone in a makeshift city north of the capital known as Canaan, where there are almost no public services like running water, electricity or health care.
“The government isn’t here at all with us,” he said, gesturing at the hill of tin shacks, half-built concrete structures and dirt lots. “It’s a difficulty we have to deal with alone … Everything, from sickness, fever to cholera. We are on our own.”
“Politics here rarely has any concrete impact on the lives of people,” said Frantz Duval, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Le Nouvelliste. “The majority of the time, the state deals with the state, and communities deal with problems on their own.”
To Duval, the new settlements in Canaan provide the clearest example of the divide between the Haitian government and the people.
“Canaan is the biggest disaster but also the biggest success story of the past five years,” he said. “We couldn't shelter people, so they did it on their own … But not a single state authority has intervened to say stop, make improvements or continue, if they happen to be doing things right.”
Five years ago, the area known as Canaan was an empty, dry scrubland. Shortly after the earthquake, then-President René Préval declared it would be set aside for relocation. Thousands moved in, lured by a promise that the state would invest. Since then, the population has exploded to more than 300,000 people, making it one of Haiti’s largest cities, and its growth is not expected to slow.
But the government never came through with its promised support. There is no electricity, running water or permanent health clinic.
A common Haitian saying, attributed to Préval, is “nage pou soti,” which translates to “sink or swim.” In Canaan many have taken that to heart. Residents have built roads, set aside land for soccer pitches and built schools — all on their own.
On a winding street in Canaan is Institution Mixte Crystal, a private school with more than 500 children from the neighborhood. Tuition is steep, $20 to $40 per student per year, which puts it out of reach of many of Canaan’s residents, many of whom are unemployed. But there are no public schools in the area, so the choices are limited.
“The other schools around here don’t even have proper walls or desks,” said Gibson Ceyton, Institution Mixte Crystal’s assistant director. “Here, at least it’s safe.”
A short walk away, on the hill above the school, is a police station, which he said was the only state presence he could think of in the area. But he said there are only five officers and people largely resolve disputes among themselves.
With the population used to providing for themselves, Ceyton said he didn’t expect the shutdown to make much of a difference for many in Canaan. “Parliament didn’t do anything to help people here, so their departure has no impact,” he said.
The government in Port-au-Prince has also failed to finalize the land expropriation process of the area around Canaan. Martelly has backed away from Préval’s promises and calls the settlements illegal. Residents are left exposed to claims of alleged landowners, who have threatened many of them with eviction.
Loinor Florestal, 60, moved in three ago and built a tidy but ramshackle structure of tin roofing and tarpaulins. Recently, he said, a man claiming to own the land demanded money from the residents.
Florestal, like many others, is now worried he will be kicked out and is doubtful the government will intervene on residents’ behalf. “The president has never come here to see how we live,” he said.
“Life here is really bad, but we will never leave here,” said August Wilbert, 48, a resident who arrived in Canaan shortly after the 2010 earthquake. “If politicians were really here to help us, they would come here and see what we need, but they don’t come.”
He added, “These [politicians] are people [who] don’t care about other people. They care about themselves.”