Port de Paix: Past, Present, and Potential

  • Posted on: 28 February 2010
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

The northwest is the poorest part of Haiti, long neglected by the Haitian government and the international community. Most Haitians have neve been here and comparatively little has been written about the region.  I recently was able to visit both Port de Paix and the Ile de Tortue, a nearby island that was once a hotbed of piracy. Below is a summary of the area's past, present, and also its potential.



According to the Touissant Louverture Project, the area around what is now Port de Paix was originally given the name Valparaíso by Christopher Columbus after landing here on December 6, 1492.  The city itself was founded in 1665 by French pirates who were driven from Ile de Tortue by the British.  In 1679, one of the first recorded slave revolts took place here, led by Padre Jean.  Port de Paix is said to have been prosperous during the 19th century, but in 1902 a fire destroyed almost all of the city -  an event from which it never fully recovered.  Port de Paix is notable for being the birthplace of Francois Capois, a leader in the Haitian revolution.  On April 12, 1803 Capois stormed Port de Paix and routed the French army, a major victory in the fight for independence.   



The island that you see is the Ile de Tortue.  Sailboats travel between Port de Paix and Ile de la Tortue from early morning until about five o clock.  The island has a compelling history, especially for those interested in piracy.Paraphrasing Cindy Vallar, when the Spanish drove the French boucaniers (hunters of wild pigs and cattle who smoked meat on boucans) from Hispaniola, they migrated to an island shaped like a turtle. It was named Tortuga by Christopher Columbus, and attracted all manner of unsavory characters.  The boucaniers preyed on Spanish ships using small boats.  These pirates became known as buccaneers.



When the French took control of Ile de la Tortue, they allowed the pirates to continue to plunder so long as a share was provided to the French governor.  Eventually, the Spanish took control of the island and the buccaneers fled.  The British later took control of the island in 1656 and invited the pirates to return.  Three years later, the French regained control and were at war with England.  During this time, they depended on the buccaneers for military assistance.  In the 1670s, Petit Goave replaced Ile de la Tortue as the main base for piracy.  Some raids continued from Tortuga but ceased by the 1688. Click here to learn more about the history of the island.


Port-de-Paix is also the chief town of an arrondissement of the same name.  The arrondissement consists of four communes: Port-de-Paix, Bassin Bleu, Chansolme and Tortuga Island.  The commune of Port de Paix itself is divided into the following communal sections: (1) Baudin; (2) La Pointe; (3) Aubert; (4) La Corne; (5) Mahotieres; and (6) Baie de Moustiques.  The Ile de la Tortue is dividied into two communal sections : (1) Aux Palmistes and (2) Mare Rouge.  The hospital and police station on Ile de La Tortue are both located in Aux Palmistes. 



The city is located on the ocean front, and one of the first thing you will notice is all manner of boats on the water, both for fishing and for transporting goods and people back forth between Ile de la Tortue.  The next thing you might notice are several large windmills on a hill, which were built by GTZ, a German development agency, to provide electricity. However, no one has the expertise to fix the windmills now.  They continue to spin, but generate no electricity.  Electricity is sporadic at best in Port de Paix.  The only reason there is electricity in the part of town where I have been staying is because an American Missionary school has a large generator which neighbors can pay to be connected to.  Most large business and organizations need to have and power their own generators.



Some roads in the city are good, some are bad, and some were good but are now bad due a lack of maintenance. When it is dry, the city is dusty, and when it rains, it becomes quite muddy. The city itself is very busy, and an army of scooter taxis take people to where they need to go.  You’ll find many of the same landmarks as in other Haitian cities such as the blue and white catholic church on the town square, a large and white building where the mayor works, and large open markets.  MINUSTAH also has a large base here and works with the government and civil society to maintain security.



There is a Haitian city so you can count on several things.  There will be a lot of music and people like to have a good time.  No matter where you order food, it will take forever.  People are generally fond of Americans.  All prices will be listed in Haitian dollars even though there is no such thing.  Most people are religious and there are many churches.  It is easier to get around with even just a few words of Kreyol. People like to joke and argue.  Honking and graffiti are forms of dialogue.  You'll be asked for money.  If you get lost, people will help you.  Waste management is almost non existent. 


Things have changed considerably as a result of the earthquake.  The population here has increased.  Some estimates place the number of displaced in the northwest as high as 45,000.  There are those who lost everything in Port au Prince and will never go back, those who will find no opportunities here and will go back, and those who would stay if they could only find work.  Most people are staying with host families. In Haiti, you don’t turn away friends or family who need you.



The public hospital (Immaculate Conception) has had a hard time keeping up with the health needs of the displaced from Port au Prince.  Both infrastructure and staffing need upgrading.  Hospital staff have treated more than 700 displaced individuals from Port au Prince who were injured.  When the quake happened, they did not have a surgeon on hand.  Fortunately, the Haitian government was able to provide them with additional staff and a Rotary Club in the United States provided some health care providers temporarily.  They are now running short of materials and equipment, such as those needed for making casts and performing surgeries.  The various buildings don’t have running water.  Water has to be drawn from a common cistern and taken to the different units.  The hospital is surrounded on all sides by slum housing and the concrete fence is falling down in many locations.  Lacking a place to put their trash, nearby residents often throw it over the wall and into the hospital complex.  Livestock have free reign of the yard and occasionally make themselves comfortable in the buildings.  Thankfully, Red Cross has a blood bank here.  This is an important hospital, being one of only three in the region and the only referral hospital.  Unlike the Justinian Hospital in Cap Haitian though, they do not have partnerships with universities and/or hospitals in other countries.  If your organization is interested, let me know. 


The economy has also had a hard time keeping up.  Jobs were scarce to begin with.  The rural areas outside of Port de Paix are isolated and agriculture is the only game in town when it comes to livelihoods.  However, it is mainly subsistence agriculture.  Irrigation used to be common but is now rare, except for the large land owners who have their own private systems.  Unfortunately, the bad roads make it difficult to bring crops to regional markets.  The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) intends to improve the road from Port de Paix to Jean Rabel, which would be a major help.  There are some micro-credit lending institutions here such as Fonkoze, COPLES, and ACLAM (supported by World Concern)



Sadly, people in Port de Paix feel that they have been abandoned by their own, and every other, government.  There is a sense of hopelessness here, that there will never be opportunities for an education, work, and a better future.  This partially explains two problems that this region has.  First, is that it is a trans-shipment point for cocaine and second this is the primary region by which Haitian migrants attempt to leave Haiti by boat.   As many Haitians are not able to swim, this is like purchasing a lottery ticket with one’s life.  The Haitian and American Coast Guards patrol the north coast of Haiti to prevent outmigration by boat.  The chances of being able to make it to the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the United States, or Cuba without being inderdicted are quite low.  Those who are interdicted are returned to Cap Haitian, provided some basic assistance, and then transported back to their communities of origen.



Perhaps Port de Paix's best asset is its strategic location.  If the Port were upgraded, the city could send and receive a much broader range of (legal) commodities.  In order to do so, the very rough road from Port de Paix to Gonaives and/or Cap Haitian would have to be improved in order to make this region a new hub for trade. 




Chances are that you won’t visit Port au Paix unless you are coming here for friends, family, or work.  If you do, you have the option of taking Route National One to Gonaives and then Route 150 to Port de Paix.  This would undoubtedly take most of the day.  You can also fly from Port au Prince or Cap Haitian to Port de Paix on Tortuga Air.  You could also take a scenic but rough multi leg trip between Cap Haitian and Port de Paix.



In terms of places to stay, the hotels are mostly along the waterfront.  Probably the best one to stay at is the Rendez Vous (left) as it is on the water, clean, and has a bar and a restaurant. As a backup, you could try the Hotel Holiday or the Hotel de La Paix, neither of which is anything special but will work in a pinch.





Frankly, there is little to see in the city of Port de Paix.  A more interesting excursion would be to go to Ile de la Tortue on a sail or motor boat.  Be sure to have Haitian friends with you as haggling with the boat captains can be a laborious process.  This beautiful, little island is underdeveloped.  On one hand, this means there are few economic opportunities apart from trafficking people and drugs.  On the other hand, there are still amazing beaches utterly unspoiled by construction.  There is one small hotel on the whole island. 



Port de Paix and the Ile de la Tortue are afterthoughts to the Haitian government and the international community.  People here know that.  But Haiti is much different country than it was before the earthquake.  Over 500,000 Port au Prince residents have fled to the regions they are originally from.  While the situation in Port au Prince is a tragedy, many of the displacd are not finding access to economic opportunities and health care in other departments. They also require protection and assistance, which has been slow in coming.  Haiti’s future depends not just on the extent to which Port au Prince can be reconstructed, but on the extent to which all of its departments, including the northwest, are developed. 



Should you find yourself travelling to out of the way locations in Haiti such as Port de Paix, please let me know.  I would be interested to hear your experiences and/or post a blog for you.  Back to Cap Haitian tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.




Bryan, thanks for these posts! I, and I'm sure many others, enjoy reading them. One day if I stay in Haiti for a more substantial period of time (e.g., more than a week or two) I want to get a little motorcycle and ride around and visit all these places, just to learn. So articles like this are really interesting to me!

Thanks, Bryan, for including information from my article "Notorious Pirate Havens: Tortuga and New Providence." If readers would like to read more, here's the link to the article: http://www.cindyvallar.com/havens5.html

Great account Bryan. I hope we will be able to do something to advance the situation.

I'm traveling with some colleagues to Port-de-Paix and St. Louis du Nord over 4th of July weekend. Are you still in Port-de-Paix? David

I am back in Washington DC but please feel free to email me and we can talk abour yout upcoming trip.

Great account of a very out of the way place. I have had my heart set on Haiti for years now but have always ben waiting out crises (the 2004 rebellions, then the kidnappings, then the floods, then the earthquake of course). As of now I've pretty much given up on visiting the south of the country anytime soon, but I would still be very interested in crossing from the Domincan side toward Cap Haitien, and maybe do more.

You mention that the road between Cap Haitien and Port de Paix is passable, but it looks on Google Earth like several bridges are out and would probably be a difficult journey. Do you know if any public transport makes the journey? It looks on Google Earth as if a number of flat bad trucks congregate in various parts of PdP and I would assume some of them are public transport vehicles. Is this the case, and if so, do they got to CH via Limbe, or is it better to go all the way down to Gonaives?

I'm used to a reasonable level of roughing it (backs of trucks, 20km per hour all day bus rides, etc) and would be willing to put up with some substantial inconveniences, but this road looks like it's on another level.

You can fly on Tortuga Air from Cap Haitian to Port de Paix and this is easiest. Not cheap though at about a hundred bucks. There are ferries that also go from Cap Haitian to Port de Paix albeit late at night and early in the morning - if you do that, by all means wear a life jacket. The road from Cap to Port de Paix along the coast is said to be very rough and slow, but doable. I dont know by what route. The road from Limbe to Gonaive to Port de Paix is the other way. It would be a full day of travelling.

Hey Bryan,
I just returned from a trip to NWhait. I had been staying with NWHCM and had hoped to visit the local hospital and help out...while i got a lot of clinic and community health hours I was still thinking about the local hospitals....just wondering if there is a way to connect with the staff and find out how to help...i know the military was just there...has that made a difference??

Military assistance is usually fairly short term in nature. What hospitals and what kind of partnerships are of interest? I can try to help you make some connections to the hospitals.

By Cpl. Alicia R. Giron
Along the unpaved streets of Port-de-Paix, Haiti, sit cracked buildings and homes. Poor construction is evident as Marines and Navy Seabees arrive at a medical facility about five miles from the coast of Port-de-Paix. The facility stands abandoned after being ravaged by time and nature. The service members acknowledge it would not be able to survive another natural disaster. In Port-de-Paix, it is not easy for Haitians to get the medical care they need. There are two medical facilities, only one is operational. The other, mentioned above, was forced to shut down due to structural damage to the roof suffered from a hurricane.
The Navy Seabees with help from Marines from 8th Engineer Support Battalion, Logistics Combat Element of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Continuing Promise 2010 began construction to replace the roof, July 27, 2010. The medical facility has been designated as one of two engineering sites for Operation Continuing Promise 2010. Continuing Promise is an annual humanitarian civic assistance operation aimed at providing medical, dental, veterinarian and engineering assistance. The operation serves as an opportunity for service members of all branches to work together and support those in need.
“We’re working in conjunction with the Seabees in putting sheet metal on the roof,” Gunnery Sgt. Joric J. Fowler, the engineer chief with 8th ESB, Special-Purpose MAGTF. “This is the only medical center in this whole region and that’s why it is of great importance to all the people here.” Marines were willing to help and excited to learn the work of a Seabee. Navy Lt. j.g. Kelly W. Stevens, the Seabee detachment officer in charge, said the Seabees mission in Haiti is to provide humanitarian construction. Marines were provided to augment the construction and gain valuable experience, he added.
Marines and sailors fought the Haitian heat as they were worked to repair the roof. The sun reflected from the sheet metal onto the Marines and sailor’s bodies throughout the day. However, their reward was well worth their efforts. “We’re giving them another place to receive medical care,” said Fowler, a native of Baton Rouge, La. “We’re willing to make the efforts to come over here and help them out. It feels great helping out, and this is something physical [Haitians] can see that we have done for them.”
Cpl. Byron G. Molina, a combat engineer with 8th ESB, said he never did construction work until he joined the military. “It feels good to help out the Haitians,” said Molina, a native of Pembroke Pines, Fla. “You get a sense of well-being … just knowing that you made a difference here.”

What is the superficy of Port-de-Paix alone and also the number of people who are living there? also the number of people in the Nord'Ouest.


I´m a retired family dentist with my own
office in a backpack, presently in Quito,Ecuador.

I would like to help the folks of Tortuga as I
have PAP, CAP, St. Michelle,etc.

Could you please send me an EMAIL of someone I could contact to make this a reality ?

Dr. Ted DDS edmondbartnett@gmail.com

I´m probably going to do volunteer
dentistry for 1 plus month whether anyone replies to this email or not.
Please drop a line edmondbartnett@gmail.com

Please reply ASAP ... Dr. Ted DDS

Hi Bryran,

I am from Port-de-Paix, and have been living in the US for almost 40 years. I feel embarrassed after reading your blog that I have not gone back to visit; although I have been back to Haiti. I would love to do so volunteer work in Port-de-Paix as I am off for the summer months. What do you suggest? One major problem, is that many of people like myself who have traveled abroad have turned their backs along with the Haitian government both past and maybe present. Again, thank you for showing such passion and commitment to my home away from home. liliafe1@aol.com


I've performed Fillings, Extractions and Cleanings
in PAP, Baudin, Cap, St. Michelle, Bas Limbe, etc.,
and now would like to help the folks of Tortuga
Island and Port de Paix.

I have all the basic equipment and expendables
needed for a while, with or without electricity.

Will be available to help early April.

Looking forward ... Dr. Ed Bartnett DDS

Hello Dr. Ed

PRH please look us up www.phoenixrisingforhaiti.org, we are heading to Haiti on may the 18th and would love to have you as part of our team. If not in May, please consider coming with us in October. We go to Port-de-Paix.

Lyvie Racine

Miami Herald
ILE DE LA TORTUE, Haiti -- Three times James Major tried to make it off this rustic island, where skeletons of wooden sailboats litter the rocky shoreline. Three times he failed, turned back by U.S. and Bahamian authorities. Still, the unemployed husband and father of two, who ate toothpaste and sipped saltwater to survive his latest harrowing attempt, says he’s ready to take the illegal journey again. “Either you die here,” he says, “or you die trying.” In recent months, dozens have died in crossings launched from these shores as trip organizers, or “managers,” prey on Haitians’ desire to escape this desperately poor country. That has created an opportunity for unscrupulous boat captains to once again turn La Tortue — and Haiti’s poorly patrolled northwest coastline — into a popular jumping-off point for clandestine migrant-smuggling operations into the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, and Florida.
The deadly voyages have marred almost every home in the village of Basse-Terre along the island’s southeastern coast. There’s the 9-year-old boy who wept as he begged his father, now deceased, not to go; the grandmother who now cares for 11 children, one of whom is disabled; and the young mother of seven who lost six relatives, including her husband. “I don’t know what to do,” said Elmika Castin, 27, sitting in her front yard, surrounded by others who have lost loved ones. “All I am doing is suffering here.” Castin said her husband and five cousins never told her they planned to leave on the morning of Nov. 18 when they went to check out rumors that a boat was departing. For days, she said, she suffered stomachaches and diarrhea awaiting word about them.
To outside observers, Ile de la Tortue, or Tortuga Island, shouldering Haiti’s northwest coast is a picturesque paradise of mangrove-lined, unspoiled beaches and breathtaking mountaintop views of the hand-built wooden sloops — feats of Haitian ingenuity — gliding through the blue channel separating the island from mainland Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. But to the 45,000 residents who call this often novelized, turtle-shaped speck home, it is anything but a romanticized haven. Ravaging hurricanes, persistent drought, grinding poverty and U.S. Coast Guard policy barring the island’s prized possessions from U.S. waters, have wreaked havoc on their livelihoods, islanders say.
“Life here isn’t easy,” said Wilson Alexis, 57, taking a break from constructing a wooden sailboat. “There are no visas being given, no commerce, and Jeanne and Hanna (hurricanes in 2004 and 2008) destroyed a lot of boats. Until now, no one has been able to help us recover the loss from those hurricanes.” Life wasn’t always this bleak here, where even the beachfront hotels are closed and overfishing has left the surrounding waters barren.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, boat captain Evenio Alexandre and others survived by plying the trade route between Haiti and Miami, and the Bahamas. The boats ferried bicycles, rice and used clothing for resale, and sailors like Alexandre made about $300 a trip. Others transported Haitian-grown plantains, mangoes and other fresh produce to the Bahamas. Then the U.S. Coast Guard in the late 1990s clamped down on the wooden sailboats, citing safety concerns: the boats’ tillers and masts are made of tree logs, there are no bathroom facilities, and the sails, which are about a $465 investment, are hand-sewn. The governments of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands followed suit, saying the vessels weren’t seaworthy, and that they were running drugs.“The minute they shut down the wooden boats, and said ‘no more,’ the island was sick,” said Alexandre, 65, who scrapes a living growing plantains and coconuts in a hillside garden, his wooden boat rotting nearby.
Alexandre said it’s easy to understand the renewed popularity of the dangerous journeys, which attract Haitians from as far away as the capital, 109 miles away. Migrants make the six-hour trek from Port-au-Prince by bus, then are ferried to the island from the nearby mainland city of Port-de-Paix. Once here, they either hike or travel by motorcycle to any of more than a dozen departure points. And desperation trumps the risks. “Everyone knows when a boat is leaving,” Major said. The first time Major, 29, had his hopes for a new life dashed, he was within sight of the jagged coastlines of the southern Bahamas. The second time, he was picked up near Cuba. The third, last November, he almost starved to death after four food-less days aboard a capsized, overcrowded 40-foot sailboat off the Bahamas. “If we had jobs, taking a boat to a foreign country wouldn’t even be considered an option,” he said, “but as long as we’re not working and a boat is leaving, it is always an option.”
Still, nothing could have prepared Major and the others for the terrifying mayhem that occurred when their sloop shipwrecked five days after leaving the nearby village of Carénage. By Saturday night, I had become distressed,” said Major, who after going through his $12 worth of energy drinks and crackers resorted to eating “Colgate and drinking saltwater” to live. “There was no food, and people were just dying of hunger in front of you,” he said.
At least 30 people died, most of them from starvation. Among them was a local elected official. And in the midst of the anarchy, survivor Jonel Orelien said, the boat’s captain “was stabbed to death.” During the four days the group spent before they were spotted by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, there were fights aboard, they said, as people scrambled for food and water. Some passengers “began doing a series of mystic rituals.” In all, 111 were rescued. But Orelien, who worked as a sailor aboard the ship, said the captain told him there were 442 passengers. Some paid with money and livestock.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamas Defense Force have no way of confirming the exact number because there is rarely, if ever, a passenger manifest.
After years of viewing illegal Haitian migration as groups of people getting together to escape political turmoil and economic hardship, U.S. authorities have begun to regard them as “criminal ventures.” The recognition comes amid growing concern about the use of a circuitous, shorter but perhaps more dangerous route through the Mona Passage separating the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico by smugglers trying to get around the beefed up Coast Guard patrols in the Florida Straits. They are ruthless,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said of the smugglers. “What Haitians don’t anticipate is getting kicked out of the boat, 50 yards or several miles from shore and having to swim for it.”
The Coast Guard and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince have launched a public-service ad campaign warning Haitians not to be fooled by reckless racketeers. “There are people out there who we don’t interdict . . . who do not make it and we don’t even know about,” said Fedor, chief of law enforcement for the seventh Coast Guard district in Miami. “Thousands try, hundreds die.” Fifteen days after the ill-fated Nov. 18 trip, another boat left from La Tortue, residents said. All of those passengers were safely returned by the Cuban government. But a Christmas Day voyage into Turks and Caicos wasn’t as fortunate. At least 17 migrants died. Last week, as the bodies of the 17 remained in the morgue in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the British dependent territory’s governor accused Haitian officials of not doing enough to stem the flow of illegal migration. “The cost of interdiction and repatriation, over $1.2 million this year, is unacceptable to TCI,” the governor’s office said.
Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said his government is trying to address the desperate situation in the drought-prone northwest. Several projects are in the works, he said, including trying to sign an agreement with the Bahamas to purchase bananas from the region. “At the end of the day it’s a jobs issue,” Lamothe told the Miami Herald. “They are going to the Bahamas, they are going to Turks and Caicos to help their families to have a decent job where they can earn a just living . . . if they could have a job they would not leave.” But getting private companies or even foreign donors to invest in long-term job creation in Haiti isn’t easy. Four years after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the country is still struggling to get donors to deliver the $14 billion in aid they pledged. “As long as there are no jobs, they will never give up. They have nothing to lose,” said Drazan Rozic, program manager with the International Organization for Migration in Haiti.
Last year, the United States ended funding for a migrant program that Rozic spearheaded in the north even as Coast Guard officials sounded the alarm over the deadly trend. For weeks, Rozic has been shopping around a new, $5.1 million income-generating project, he said, aimed at keeping Haitians at home. So far, there are no takers among potential donors. “Everybody agrees on the components, the methodology, and support the idea. It’s just a matter of figuring out who will pay for it,” Rozic said. Sagesse-Fils Loriston, a local representative, said the island and its residents have been forgotten. There are no roads, no electricity and no latrines. There aren’t even docks or ports. Just four police offices patrol the island. If Port-au-Prince is serious about stemming the flow of migration from here, Loriston said, it is easy. “You reinforce security and create the conditions for the people, especially the young people, to less and less view the sea as an option,” he said. “The people, they are hungry and they are miserable.”

Miami Herald
By Jacqueline Charles
ÎLE DE LA TORTUE, Haiti -- Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee … A rugged mountain road in Haiti is an odd place to suddenly remember your childhood, but I began reciting the long-forgotten rosary prayer as I clung to the back of a motorcycle zooming to the top of a cliff, perilously close to the steep edge. In the dark. With no helmet. I clenched my teeth and held tight onto the driver, who hung my giant work bag around his neck, and ignored the shouts to slow down from the pack of low-cc cruisers behind us. Blessed art thou amongst women…
Far behind the pack, my colleague, Miami Herald photographer Patrick Farrell, was having the opposite experience. His bike was so under-powered that the driver kept pleading with him in Creole to lean forward as they went up the steep hill so the bike wouldn’t stall and roll backward. So much for Patrick’s adamant protests about taking motorcycle taxis in a mountainous Haiti. When Patrick and I decided to visit Île de la Tortue to investigate a recent rash of Haitian migrant boat tragedies at sea, little did we realize it would turn into such an odyssey. After a six-hour drive through Haiti’s bucolic countryside in a pickup truck, followed by a two-hour rolling voyage on a rickety boat made from logs and a hand-sewn sail, and our two-wheel climb up the mountain in the dark, we finally arrived at the launching point of so many dashed dreams.
Once a favorite pit stop for 17th century pirates, Tortuga is the island made famous by Pirates of the Caribbean films, but there are no movie endings for most of the desperate, starving Haitians who flee from here — and risk sea journeys far more treacherous than the route Patrick and I took to tell their story. Like the nearby grimy, dusty city of Port-de-Paix, this island in Haiti’s neglected northwest, is where some of the Haiti’s poorest of the poor live. Drought, man-made and natural disasters have all wrecked havoc over the years, stripping away the winds of hope that sail through here with every presidential election, every international community involvement. “We’ve been forgotten,” Estella Coicou, a mother of a 9-year-old girl born with stumped legs would later tell me. “We don’t have anyone here who represents us. No parliamentarians, no one. Me? I’m never voting again.”
Our negotiations to reach the island began in a restaurant at a filing station in Port-de-Paix, one of Haiti’s largest and most neglected big cities. In the far northwest, it is disconnected from Port-au-Prince, the capital. It has a lawless, cowboy feel. A local contact put me in touch with Sagesse-Fils Loriston. Loriston owned several wooden sailboats that ferry passengers between the island and mainland and a canoe that would take us up and down the mangrove-lined coastline. Perhaps more important, he was a CASEC or government representative who had a pulse on residents’ plights. Loriston was well-aware that his picturesque but forgotten island was again becoming a popular launching pad in the Haitian migrant pipeline into the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Florida. The people, he kept emphasizing, need jobs, a way to make a living.
There are no schedules for departures, and boats come into any number of ports along the poorly patrolled coastline, including as far away as Saint-Louis du Nord, a rural community east of Port-de-Paix. After making a few calls, Loriston announced that our charter was ready. We had to hurry. We hopped on the backs of motorcycles and rushed to catch the boat, weaving in and out of traffic along the dusty streets. At the water’s edge, we encountered our first surprise. Our charter was neither a recreational fishing boat nor a yacht as Patrick had imagined, given the lengthy negotiations. Instead, it was a motorized, wooden sloop with sails. And it eerily reminded me of the 40-footer that capsized in November off the coast of the Bahamas after five days at sea, and the 28-footer that nearly toppled on Christmas Day in the Turks and Caicos. Seventeen migrants fell to their deaths off Providenciales.
Battered and with peeling blue and white paint, our “charter” was already packed with 21 passengers. Among them: a sleeping baby, a woman suffering from a very painful toothache, and two men who were the only ones wise enough to wear life jackets. I later learned they all paid the equivalent of $2.32 for the trip. As I uncomfortably stared at our sloop idling in the water, two young men hoisted Patrick off his feet and plopped him into a rickety canoe. As they turned toward me, I said in Creole, “That’s OK. I am going to walk.” This is probably a good place to mention that I don’t swim. Several paddles later, we were alongside the sloop as two crew members reached in and ably pulled us aboard despite their thin frames. Now this is not my first boat ride. My father, in his youth, was a mariner who plied what used to be a thriving trade route between Haiti and the Turks and Caicos, and I regularly travel by boat between islands in the Turks and Caicos chain.
But our charter was neither the Boston Whaler sports fishing boat I’ve grown accustomed to, nor the steel frame commercial merchant ships I’ve grown up with. There were no seats. No bathroom facilities or even a rail to hold. I shared a “seat” with a 55-inch flat screen TV resting on someone’s plastic covered mattress, while its owner kept a watchful eye. As I wondered about the luxury goods in a dirt-poor island with no electricity, I quickly realized why some migrants prefer to travel in the hold, rather than on deck. “The scary thing about these vessels is they are overloaded and that decreases their stability,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor would later tell me, explaining why the sloops, which have been known to topple even in Haitian waters while ferrying passengers, are unsafe. “They can easily capsize.”
Long before I fought back visions of being thrown off the speeding motorcycle, I envisioned falling into the ocean as I kept slipping off the mattress’ plastic with every wave we hit, and the lopsided sloop tilted way too much to one side. As I struggled to stay upright, curious passengers wondered who we were. It was only natural. Despite its natural beauty and prized beach — Condé Nast Traveler named its Pointe-Ouest a top Caribbean beach — La Tortue doesn’t get many outside visitors. As we would later learn, while trying to find a place to sleep, all of the beach-side hotels were shut down. The journey provided a glimpse into the risk Haitians routinely take here: at some point during the ride over, our sail suddenly snapped, sending the crew scrambling to bring it down, and me pummeling to the floor. Nearly two hours into what should have been a 45-minute jaunt, a rope had to be thrown from one of Loriston’s other boats to tow us in.
We finally arrived at the seaside rural village of Basse-Terre, where residents and survivors of the November tragedy, spoke of how that voyage had touched almost every home in the rustic village. “We don’t have a chance here,” Raymonville Thelusma, 32, a survivor from the November capsize said. “Life isn’t good for us.” Thelusma’s sentiments were repeated throughout as islanders pointed out that it hadn’t rained in a month and a half, and death, for them, had become an option. The November boat was Bahamas-bound, where migrants had heard there were jobs. “You can’t even afford a sack of rice here,” said Coicou, who later asked that we photograph her handicapped daughter in hopes of getting some assistance.
James Major, a father of two who had three times tried but failed to get to the Bahamas, vowed to try again. His recent near-death at sea didn’t deter him, nor Bahamian authorities’ penchant for rounding up undocumented Haitians and deporting them. “Ever since I was a kid, I heard about them sending Haitians back from the Bahamas, but they still go,” he said. The sunlight was disappearing, and we had to find a place to sleep. My friend, Jean-Cyril Pressoir, who runs a local tour company, Tour Haiti, remembered a hotel at the top of the mountain where we could spend the night. To get there, we had to go by motorcycle. This is how I met my driver, who called himself “150cc” because he drives his 125cc motorcycle at top speed. After finally arriving at our “hotel,” a sparsely furnished, hilltop mansion transformed into a bed-and-breakfast where we were the only guests that night, Cyril read my mind. “We are hiking it down the mountain on foot tomorrow,” he said. After reading about the residents’ plight in the Miami Herald, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe sent a truckload of food — enough to feed 1,000 families for 10 to 12 days — to the island. The food, said Klaus Eberwein, who is spearheading an emergency task force at Lamothe’s request, is just an emergency response. The government, he said, is working on more long-term programs. Eberwein, who admits to not liking boats, says he’ll soon make a trip to the island. I suggested he take a life jacket.

Miami Herald
Newly installed solar-powered street lamps stand as a beacon of hope, lighting up the rocky terrain as idle bulldozers collect dust along the lush mountainside. In a nearby village, a new public square slowly rises out of the red dirt, but local cooks working at a poorly financed community restaurant struggle to keep hunger at bay. Nearly 11 months after the Haitian government launched an emergency intervention on this island five miles north of mainland Haiti in response to a Miami Herald report about the deadly migrant smuggling operations from its shores, elements of change are starting to emerge. “There is a little bit of hope,” said Clemond Francois, 43, standing on the beach in the seaside village of Basse-Terre, which has no roads. “What we didn’t use to see, we are starting to see. There is heavy equipment that they have brought onto the island to build roads even though we here have yet to see them build a road.”
After years of being abandoned by multiple governments, villagers on this fabled island — long a popular launching point for migrant smuggling to the Bahamas in hopes of eventually reaching the United States — are quick to grasp any signs of progress. But desperation again is starting to mount because of the slow pace of change, the lack of sustainability and uneven distribution of government social programs. Projects stand unfinished; promised jobs haven’t come. It is only a matter of weeks, villagers say, before the perilous journeys on the open seas, which had ceased, start again as they usually do in December. “Our only hope are the smuggling operations. That is where our future lies,” said Ronald Fores, 24, looking out to sea where a group of shirtless men struggled to fix a damaged wooden sailboat tilted on its side. “The country doesn’t offer anything.” Three times, Fores said, he has tried to escape this island’s grinding poverty aboard a wooden sailboat only to be apprehended by foreign authorities. On his last attempt, in December 2013, he ended up in Cuba. He was en route to Miami, he said. “And I will still take the risk,” he said. “This is the only thing that provides a way out. Without the smuggling operations, everyone will die.”
As Fores speaks, others nod their head in agreement as barefooted children play against a backdrop of wooden boats littering the shorelines and dotting the sea. “If we aren’t dead, it’s because God has spared us,” said Evenson Forest, 36, a father of two and subsistence fisherman. “We have no doctor, no nurse, no health center, no potable water.” Last year, dozens died in crossings launched from the island’s shores as unscrupulous boat captains and trip organizers, referred to as “managers,” preyed on villagers’ desperation. Once more, the turtle-shaped island’s unpatrolled coastline had become a popular jumping-off point for clandestine migrant-smuggling operations, and almost every home in Basse-Terre had lost someone at sea. Though romanticized in novels for its 17th century reputation as a pirates’ haven from which French and English buccaneers launched their attacks, the island in recent years has been ravaged by hurricanes, a persistent drought, grinding poverty and a Coast Guard policy barring its most prized possessions, the wooden sailboats, from U.S. waters because of safety concerns. With no visas being given to mariners, no commerce, no rain, life was bleak. A day after the Herald article was published, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe ordered that 1,000 food kits of rice, beans, cooking oil and agricultural seeds be trucked in from Port-au-Prince. He also formed an emergency task force. Basse-Terre residents say those most in need didn’t receive any of the kits, and they accuse Mayor Rolin Joseph of distributing most of the food to partisans in the more populated town of Aux Palmistes. They also accuse Joseph of preventing Lamothe from visiting with them when he came here in February. Joseph declined to comment.
After the visit, Lamothe, in a nationally televised live cabinet meeting, tasked cabinet members with providing him with a plan to improve conditions on the island of 45,000, where four out of 10 households were living in extreme food insecurity, and 13,000 out of 20,000 school-age children weren’t enrolled, according to his own government’s assessment. The Economic and Social Assistance Fund (FAES) announced a 27-point, $2 million plan that included creating seven community restaurants serving a total of 3,500 meals a day, the distribution of more food kits, a credit program for 200 female merchants and the creation of 1,000 new jobs through a sanitation program. The government also said it planned to distribute 2,000 kits of agricultural seeds, 1,000 fishing kits and 1,000 goats. Its tuition-free education program for children and adult literacy program for 6,750 mothers also was to be expanded. Telecom giant Digicel was asked to construct a public school for 300 children with all the furnishings. The company completed the project in four months in the main town of Aux Palmistes. Months later, Lamothe’s office announced that Carnival Cruise Lines’ parent company had signed a letter of intent to develop a new port on the barrier island. FAES head Klaus Eberwein, tasked with carrying out the government’s plan, said they have delivered. Things haven’t moved as quickly as some would like, he said, because some projects such as the goat distribution are purposefully being phased in, while the road construction has been delayed because of budget issues and a workers’ strike. “We have the money. And on Monday or Tuesday, the equipment will start to work and start rehabilitating all of the existing roads and tracing new roads,” Eberwein said.
The Senate refused to approve the budget after Lamothe declined to appear before them to defend it; President Michel Martelly published it in October in the official government register. The delay, Eberwein said, also has been due to the lack of a socioeconomic survey to help identify the poorest of the poor. That survey, put out to bid, will start on Dec. 1, he said. “While we are waiting, we have a given a lot of things,” he said, noting that 57 percent of the plan has been completed, including the literacy program. “For instance, we have given more than 8,000 food kits. … We also hired 2,800 people out of the whole island.” Eberwein said the long-term development people crave cannot be forged with government money. “The country has a lot of poverty, and you cannot reach every person. The expectations are so high that I understand their frustrations because we made a lot of promises,” he said. “That special plan was a short-term operation to make some social appeasement and start some long-term investments.” Ralph Brossard, FAES’ special representative, said the government is committed to the island. “I want to see the island develop,” Brossard said, noting his desire to install a bank and a factory to produce peanut butter “and sell it all across the country in bottles marked Île de la Tortue.”
“I am creating projects, and I am looking for projects,” he said, adding that in the seaside village of Cayonne, next to Basse-Terre, “we want to build a port, we want to have customs offices.” “On the island there are a bunch of cars, motorcycles that do not have plaques and are illegal,” he said. “There is a huge problem here with people not wanting to pay taxes.” For the government to receive taxes, residents say, it has to provide more than unfulfilled promises. In Basse-Terre, where mothers still mourn children who died a year ago this month after an overcrowded 40-foot sailboat capsized off the Bahamas, stranding passengers for four days without food, residents say they have benefited little from the government’s emergency plan. They complain that parents are still being asked to pay school fees even with the tuition waivers, and so far there have been no signs of the goats or even fishing kits. “That light pole is all we got,” said Fores, pointing to the lone streetlight, now a community gathering spot. “They sent road equipment here and they’ve been sitting here for months, not doing anything. That is not development. Sending bags of food isn’t development either. That’s not what we are looking for.” Government observers and critics say the frustrations are understandable. Not only are the social programs not based on sound development principles, they argue, they are targeted assistance aimed more at trying to placate certain populations rather than helping them grow out of poverty. “There is a lack of coherent development strategy,” said Claude Beauboeuf, a former program manager and chief economist for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Haiti.
The food kits and free education “may be better than nothing, but all this remains social peanuts given the scope of poverty and hunger here,” he added. Sebastian Edwards, a former chief economist for Latin America at the World Bank, said aid needs to have a two-pronged approach. “Humanitarian assistance is of essence in emergency cases. But in the longer run, we need concerted programs that focus on increasing the local population’s ability to create jobs and become productive,” said Edwards, the Henry Ford II distinguished professor of international economics at UCLA. “It is fundamental that these programs are not hijacked by bureaucrats and that they don’t fuel corruption.” Like Fores, James Major also has tried three times to escape this island’s hopelessness and, like him, ended up back in his dirt-strewn shack after being apprehended. After telling the Herald earlier this year he was prepared to take his chances again despite nearly dying in the Bahamas incident, the unemployed father and husband now says he’s had a change of heart. Anticipating change was coming, Major and his wife earlier this year formed a ready-to-work labor force consisting of 200 able-bodied men to help build the new roads the government promised. Five months later, nothing. “The mayor has never called,” Major said. Several miles up a steep hill at the top of the mountain where solar lamps now light up the trail, there is more hope than frustration. In the rural town of Mawouj (Mare Rouge), workers feverishly rush to finish construction of a public square, the island’s first. “It’s a savior for some of the people,” said Joseph-Liverdieu Dorcieus, 49, an assistant mayor. “It employs 15 to 20 men a day.” But not far from the construction, the remnants of a new outdoor market stand idle. In the opposite direction, 72 first-graders sit inside a single, dilapidated classroom in a donated building that serves as the public primary school.
Dorcieus said the community has seen other benefits. There is an increased police presence, and agricultural seeds have been distributed to farmers. Still, a drought earlier this year has made farming a challenge. “This is the season for planting, but there is a lot of hunger in the community,” Dorcieus said. Local officials are no better off than the population, some of the country’s poorest, and can’t give what they don’t have, he said. As are the people of Basse-Terre, Dorcieus also is no fan of the food handouts. “They don’t want kits,” he said. “They want jobs.” Inside a dusty yard, five women are busy preparing a meal of yellow grits and rice. Three oversized steel pots brew on a wood fire. The meals are supposed to feed 500 people, but the daily government-issued rations aren’t enough to serve the 300 who will soon line up with their plates. “Sometimes when school lets out, you get a lot of kids stopping by looking for food and they can’t find any,” said Decesse Louima, 58, manager of the Ede Pep restaurant in Mawouj. “The rice, for instance, will be finished before they arrive.” On the surface, the concept, similar to a soup kitchen, seems like a good idea: The government provides the dry staples, which the women cook and sell for the equivalent of 21 cents a plate. However, the rations are not enough, says cook Luizida Jorilien, 58, and some days those seeking food can’t even afford the 21 cents, forcing them to give the food away. On the rare days when all of the food is sold, the proceeds aren’t enough to cover the daily expenses, the women say. They include $4.25 for a drum of non-potable water, $4.78 for cooking wood and $53.19 on seasonings. The government provides $42.55 for extras, such as meat, but the women say it’s not enough to cover their costs.
When the Herald visited in October, the women said they had yet to be paid their monthly salary of $127 since the restaurant opened on April 25. Also, they owed $425 in rent for the house they use, money that FAES was supposed to pay. On Nov. 12, FAES paid the women for four of the seven months they were owed, Louima said, but “the house still hasn’t been paid.” “The owner kicked us out, and we’ve been shut down for almost a month,” he said. “Just now, I received three phone calls from people in the community asking me when the restaurant will reopen because the population is suffering. They are hungry.”

International Organization for Migation
Haiti - IOM has produced a video to raise awareness about the dangers of irregular migration by sea from Haiti. The documentary features a series of direct testimonials from Port-de-Paix and Tortuga Island residents who attempted the perilous crossings. The northwest coast of Haiti is the main departure point for desperate irregular migrants who want to reach the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, or the United States. These crossings are often organized by unscrupulous smugglers on rickety, unsafe boats, with passengers facing violence, hunger, rape, prison and repatriation, and sometimes even death at sea. IOM has been at the forefront of addressing the root causes of high migration flows from major at-risk communities. Between 2008 and 2014, its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme offered direct assistance to 8,638 returning migrants.
The programme reinforced the Haitian government’s capacities to address irregular migration in targeted communities along the country’s northern coast, facilitating the return and reintegration of irregular migrants rescued at sea. Several communication campaigns to deter irregular migration have been implemented using different channels, including illustrated magazines in Creole, radio programs, theatrical performances, and mass sensitization campaigns. “It is essential to inform potential migrants of the dangers intrinsic in irregular sea journeys. We felt that the most persuasive way to do this was through the actual voices of those who have attempted these dangerous and, too often, deadly journeys. We met with local Port-de-Paix residents and found that they had a lot of stories to share, even though some were afraid to speak out or show their faces,” explains Ilaria Lanzoni, IOM’s Media and Communications Officer in Haiti. “The stories that were collected form quite a comprehensive catalogue of the hardships and atrocities faced by irregular migrants. Most of them witnessed people dying during crossings and being thrown overboard by smugglers, who often use violence against anyone who dares to complain. Passengers are often refused water and food during the whole journey,” said IOM Haiti Chief of Mission Gregoire Goodstein.
Lanzoni adds: “Personally, the story that touched me the most was Betty’s, a 28-year-old widow and mother of two, who lost her husband during one of such trips, without ever getting to know exactly what happened to him. Despite that, she attempted the journey herself twice, in the hope of being able to give a better life to her children. What is heart-breaking is that, despite all the efforts and resources spent on these attempts, they brought nothing but misery to these families, who often end up poorer than before.”
The see the video, please go to:
English version: http://youtu.be/gfVvXQSOr-E
French version: http://youtu.be/r77hF7yJtjg
For more information, please contact
Ilaria Lanzoni
IOM Haiti
Email: ilanzoni@iom.int
Tel. +509 370 250 66

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