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Cynicism winning the day as desperate Haitians await help

Haitians weep for broken homes and lament lost churches, but nobody cries for the smashed Revenue building or even the destroyed Ministry of Education.

What if a country lost its government and the people didn't care?

"The Haitian government is garbage," said Faniel Guerrier, an unemployed 25-year-old, echoing a point of view repeated dozens of times since the earthquake struck.

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Many of Haiti's citizens think their government is useless or even evil, and their leaders have a long history of proving them right. The cynicism is mainstream, and it exposes a huge long-term obstacle to rebuilding the shattered capital and country.

Abandoned by their broken institutions and waiting for the rest of the world, many Haitians are trying to flee uncertain days ahead, while many more are getting gouged in reviving markets.

There's little talk of rebuilding civil society or a functioning government.

Worse, many fear politicians and bandits will intercept most of the assistance and sell it on the black market.

Gilles Rivard, Canada's ambassador to Haiti, predicted the government would rise from the rubble and again become functional. Many Haitians on the street say that's the last thing they need.

The Haitian government should "be kept away as far as possible," according to school teacher Rémy Descartes. "If they get involved in distribution, that'll be the last we see of it."

"They'll resell it to the people," Mr. Guerrier added.

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But before any aid has had a chance to be stolen and put onto the black market, prices on the street are steadily rising. Street vendors are still doing brisk business with their dwindling stocks of rice, beans and fried vegetables, while international aid trickled out of the city's airport. In a country where the average daily income per person before the quake was about $1.25, street vendors sold a common rice and bean dish for a $1 a plate, nearly four times more expensive than normal. The price of a sack of rice ranged from 50 to 100 per cent higher than before the quake.

Much of the commerce is now taking place in open air in front of shattered stores. Piles of potatoes, canned goods and water were still widely available, and women walked away from several rice stores with 25-kilogram bags balanced on their heads.

Aircraft landed and unloaded seamlessly at the Port-au-Prince airport Monday, where blankets from Panama, beans from Venezuela and rice from Bolivia were unloaded. A Canadian plane dropped off 18 pallets of food and medicine.

While dozens of cargo planes from around the world unloaded, skepticism at the international effort was also creeping in.

"What I see on the street is that Haiti really has no friends, not the USA, not Canada, not France," Louis-Charles Nado said. "We've seen nothing."

Canadian officials said clogged roads and difficult co-ordination were still holding up the smooth distribution of food and other support.

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"Things are getting better little by little, but people will have to be patient," Mr. Rivard said. "This amount of progress for Day 6 is very short if you look at the magnitude of the situation. I've never seen anything like it, and I've spent 25 years around the world."

Many Haitians lost patience and headed instead for the countryside and beyond, with passengers packing bus stations, the wharf and the airport.

Hundreds showed up at the Canadian embassy amid a rumour officials were handing out visas. A local radio station commentator took Canadian promises to expedite immigration as a free pass for all Haitians. The crowd was big, but well behaved, many brandishing long-expired, non-Canadian passports and clearly fake travel documents.

"The Haitian media apparently commended us on our openness, and it took [on] huge proportions," Mr. Rivard said.

A handful of aid-distribution centres did pop up, mostly run by local businesses and charities.

In the Delmas neighbourhood, not far from the Canadian embassy, a local aid group handed out cans of sardines and toilet paper. A sanitation company called CNE sent several tanker trucks around the city to hand out potable water.

Gina Georges, a union organizer for city workers, said the earthquake offered Haitians something they've rarely seen before: An egalitarian disaster that struck rich and poor, politician and pauper, with equal ferocity.

"For once, there were no distinctions," she said.

She's waiting to see whether Haiti's government and foreign aid workers can be nearly as evenhanded.

She's not hopeful.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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