By JOSEPH B. FRAZIER, Associated Press Writer
CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti – The cruise ships that came here twice a week haven’t for two decades.
Neither have the Club Med tours that headed to the Citadelle, a hilltop fortress built by King Christopher 200 years ago, just after the French left. He never trusted them not to come back.
Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, has seen 20 years of slide through a dozen wobbly national governments.
Rebels who launched an uprising that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last month seized the northern city on Feb. 22 and made it their headquarters. The weeks of fighting left the city an armed camp — battered, partly burned and on edge.
It has been here since 1690, a proud port in the Caribbean. It survived pirates, the French, the Spanish and a U.S. occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934. Now it is trying to survive Haiti.
Now a group of civic leaders are trying to sidestep the political polarity that has caused the recent problems and bring the city back to something of its former glory.
They have their hands full.
“I hope this time Haiti will take its destiny in its own hands and not wait for the white people to come here and say ‘shine my shoes,'” said hotel owner Walter Bussinius, a lifelong resident who brought the group together.
Pierre Richard Joseph, a businessman and consultant who helped form the group called the “Initiative Syndicate,” said the idea is to supplement, not replace, any government that comes to power and give this remote region, some 90 miles north of the capital of Port-au-Prince, some economic autonomy.
“We aren’t talking about political autonomy,” he said. “But if Cap-Haitien needs a gallon of gas or a sack of flour, we want that to be here. We don’t want to have to rely on them.”
“This will not depend on the president because the president we have today will not be the president we have tomorrow. We want to work with the government as an institution,” he added.
If the city doesn’t take matters into its own hands, he said, “We will wait many, many months for anything from Port-au-Prince.”
Cap-Haitien’s problems go beyond its outskirts. Until a few weeks ago cruise ships still came to Labadie, a postcard-perfect beach a few miles away, although the passengers didn’t always know where they were.
Employees at Labadie said ship visitors didn’t leave the beach compound and often weren’t even told they were in Haiti, but on an island.
“In the 1980s we were hit with what we call the 4-H disease,” said Moro Baruk, an artist in the tourist town of Jacmel on the south coast. “People saw Haiti as HIV (news – web sites), hemophilia, heroin addiction and hurricanes. Add poverty and violence to that and who will come here?”
Cap-Haitien, meanwhile, has exploded from a city of 175,000 two decades ago to perhaps 750,000 today thanks to a flow of rural dwellers unable to make a living in the eroding countryside.
“Twenty years ago here it was paradise,” Bussinius said.
He said the committee will be approaching countries with ties to Haiti, a former French colony, for help but doesn’t want to be a nuisance. So far, they’ve received donations of a bulldozer, truck and scarce fuel since an initial meeting on Tuesday.
He said priorities include restoring the looted port and trashed airport, and establishing a radio education program about sanitation, health and other topics.
“We want to bring back potable water and open the schools,” he said. “They have been closed for about a month now.”