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Quake has rendered Haiti's government powerless

Haitian President Rene Preval speaks to the press in Port-au-Prince this week: Can anything be achieved given Haiti's political culture, a culture defined by distrust, betrayal, corruption and violence?

ALEX OGLE/Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

Improvised stages under mango trees on the outskirts of a ruined capital are never the most dignified of locations, as far as post-disaster government press conferences go.

But a disagreement over tents and a couple of awkward moments at the Haitian government's daily press briefings last week highlighted what's going to become, increasingly, a bone of contention as recovery efforts continue in the wake of the biggest quake to hit Haiti in centuries.

Tents, President René Préval told the assembled crowd, are the single thing the country needs most now - 200,000 of them, to be exact. And quickly.

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But the man who spoke directly after him wasn't so sure.

"In our opinion, we should look at other solutions," said Lewis Lucke, the head of the United States' aid mission - the donor with the deepest pockets in Haiti's post-quake recovery.

"Tents would impede a permanent solution for reconstruction."

The same request had been rebuffed days earlier, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Haiti summit in Montreal, made it clear her country has no plans to commit to fulfilling that kind of request.

But Mr. Preval and his culture and communications minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, who has taken charge of most press briefings since the earthquake, stuck to their guns.

"The Haitian government needs 200,000 tents," she said. "We are grateful for people who are donating to NGOs … but it's not the Haitian government that gets that money. We would like the NGOs receiving money for Haiti to use the money to buy tents."

It underscored just how little power the Haitian government has in setting priorities when it comes to the country's reconstruction. Mr. Preval's administration, which relied heavily on international aid even before Jan. 12, has arguably been as crippled as much of the rest of the country in the quake's aftermath.

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And although the government has expressed gratitude for the cash pouring in from international donors - more than $470-million so far - it's clear they're less than comfortable with how patently obvious it is they're unable to call the development shots in their own country.

That point was driven home by a protest outside: A small but loud and angry group of public-service workers with signs, calling for everything from compensation to an outright coup.

"The government has no power," one man said. "It's completely incapable of helping us."

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