The 10th Department

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — I went to Haiti this last weekend, just for two days. I could have gone to Key West, but it would have taken twice as long to drive there, and the Conch Republic lost its edge back in the 90s.

Somehow, probably with the help of tourists, old Cayo Hueso managed in the process to keep the smell of sewage in the streets. It only takes two hours to get to Haiti, and you can get smells there too, and it definitely still has an edge. In addition, it has a more hearty independence in it very core, more courage in the people you see carrying their wares atop their heads, pulling impossibly heavy carts, caring for their country against considerable odds, than you will find in Margaritaville if you walk the entire length of Duval Street.

That is because, as my uncle put it tonight, if anyplace has been f’cked over by the United States, that would be Haiti. The only time this first country in this hemisphere to overthrow slaveholders is left to its own devices is when circumstances present an overwhelming and unpopular challenge.

So while Matt Damon and Wyclef Jean rightly draw attention to the now flooded hell that one hurricane after another made of Gonaive and other northwestern coastal towns, life continues as usual in Port Au Prince, largely unaffected by the storms except for the flood of American politicians and reporters who took comfortable refuge at the Montana Hotel.

LIfe as usual includes, for the more than 3800 prisoners — most not convicted but awaiting trial — at the National Penitentiary a tortured existence. The prison is crowded to more than four times its capacity, forcing prisoners to share window ledges not big enough for one to stretch out on for their beds, stand because for many there is no room to sit, and get deathly ill with conditions and sickness that are treatable. I saw a man with blistering swollen feet on which he could barely  limp; “This is what happens to athletes’ foot if it goes untreated long enough,” the doctor who had come on his own time and own money to tend to these patients told me. Young men with shingles turned out to be sick with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. A few more had drug-resistant tuberculosis — curable, but almost always deadly here. A patient the doctor had come to treat had died instead that weekend.

I saw the tuberculosis sanitarium where ward of ward of people lay dying — some being treated, some insufficiently treated, some not treated at all. In the prison ward hollow-eyed skeletons lay dying handcuffed to their bedframes.

Haiti has nine departments — the equivalent of states.

The 10th department is the million or so who have fled conditions that remain the result of political interference by the United States and other countries, and who send money home.

They are, in a world made smaller daily by technology and travel as well as disease, not just our neighbors but ourselves.

It is closer and more exotic than Key West, more informative than Epcot Center, and it is worth the trip, to see what is on the other side of the flimsy fence we have built around ourselves.

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