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Port-au-Prince: Haiti post offers rewarding work and cultural riches.

Haitians affectionately call their homeland "Ayiti Cheri" (Haiti, my love), reflecting their deep affection for it. Mission employees also grow quite fond of Haiti, with many returning for second and even third tours. Though headlines often highlight catastrophes--both natural and man-made--they do not fully capture life on the western half of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. For those who accommodate its challenges and embrace its charms, Haiti offers a rich array of professional opportunities and cultural delights.

Roughly the size of Maryland, Haiti features mountainous landscapes and more than a thousand miles of dramatic coastline. Haiti and Cuba bookend the famed Windward Passage, the shipping lane connecting the U.S. eastern seaboard to the Panama Canal.

Coffee and sugar made "Saint Domingue" the world's richest colony before Toussaint Louverture launched a guerrilla war to oust the French and gain independence in 1804, making Haiti the world's first black republic. The uprising forced Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory to finance French war e orts. The monument-filled capital reminds visitors of the country's revolutionary past, of which Haitians are fiercely proud.

Kreyol and French are the national languages, though many Haitians learn English and Spanish. They strongly identify with their "Konpa culture," the distinctive national music whose pulsating beat draws from Caribbean and African influences. In March 2010, famous Konpa singer Michel Martelly became the country's third democratically elected president. It's not uncommon to catch President Martelly, whose stage name is "Sweet Micky," giving an impromptu performance at Hotel Oloffson, the gingerbread guesthouse and setting for Graham Greene's 1966 novel "The Comedians."

One Mission, One Voice

The U.S. Mission's large interagency presence, consisting of 11 government agencies, works with Haitian leaders to help generate momentum and fulfill the country's potential in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, which set the country back after a period of sustained economic growth. U.S. assistance is focused on four pillars: governance and rule of law, infrastructure and energy, food and economic security, and health and other basic services. A whole-of-government approach enables the mission to address perennially knotty problems.

A focus of the political section is to help ensure credible and transparent elections, and assist the Haitian government in its e orts to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law. Through a State Department/New York City partnership, the narcotics a airs section oversees a handful of Haitian-American NYPD officers who spend three-month rotations mentoring their Haitian National Police counterparts. The economic section assists U.S. firms seeking to source Haitian Mountain Blue coffee and fair-trade Fransik mangoes. The mission's Health Pillar Team--composed of CDC and USAID--has aided international e orts to curb the spread of cholera. The public diplomacy section, for the first time since 2004, is bringing American Fulbright Scholars back to the island. On the northern coast is the recently opened Caracol Industrial Park ("State Magazine", October). The facility is the largest of its kind in the Caribbean, and is one of the foreign investments designed to revitalize an export sector whose products once included the balls used in Major League Baseball.

However, the 52 percent adult literacy rate and highest brain drain in the world (80 percent of university-trained citizens) continue to hamper Haiti's growth, which remains heavily dependent on remittances and foreign aid. Despite progress in reducing gang violence and crime, mission personnel have a midnight curfew, and travel in armored vehicles to certain city sections. Traffic jams, poor infrastructure, frequent power outages and a lack of green space mean that those assigned to Haiti earn their 30 percent hardship differential.

International Presence

Though transportation is frustrating, it is well worth the e ort to explore Port-au-Prince, the hilly seaside capital and congested hub of activity whose population exceeds two million. A broad array of embassies, multilateral institutions and nongovernmental organizations enrich the social scene centering on Petionville, a suburb full of art galleries, French pastry shops, live-music venues and restaurants whose cuisine ranges from Dutch to French to Thai to Lebanese. After dinner and on weekends, the music scene heats up with DJs and local Konpa bands.


The mission community is a mix of individuals and a dozen families whose children attend one of four local schools that use an English or French curriculum. Across the street from the new embassy complex is a gated community with dozens of single-family townhomes, a swimming pool, tennis court and clubhouse that is adjacent to a sugarcane museum whose gardens are a premier concert venue. Those who live near Petionville trade longer commutes to be at the social scene's doorstep. The large presence of international actors creates employment opportunities for eligible family members through the bilateral work agreement.






In 2008, the Haitian government put tourism on the agenda to draw visitors to its many historical gems like the Citadel Henry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere, completed a few years after independence from France. Unfortunately, travel within Haiti is expensive and accommodation still often rustic. Among the most popular activities are hiking amid pine trees in the cool Kensco mountain air or relaxing at Sunday brunch while sipping mimosas and listening to live jazz.



Tropical Relaxation

Mission employees also enjoy reveling at Carnival in Jacmel, a tranquil southern artisan city known for its papier-mache masks, and spending long weekends at the beach enjoying the tropical breeze, fresh seafood and sweet rum punch. One of the largest cruise ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet anchors o Haiti's northern coast each week so its sun-seeking tourists can play on the white sand of Labadee Beach.

To work up a sweat on the weekends, many mission employees run with the Hash House Harriers, play Ultimate Frisbee or compete in frequent tennis tournaments at the ambassador's residence. Others volunteer at the Sacre-Coeur English Club and Rose Mina Orphanage, both supported by J. Kirby Simon Trust grants. Weekdays, the Marine House--recently host to a chili cook-of--is the preferred venue to wind down. Active workout groups help relieve workday stress.

For travel outside Haiti, eight daily direct flights connect South Florida and the New York metro area to Port-au-Prince. With several air links to its island neighbors, Haiti is also a good launching pad to explore the Caribbean.

"Haiti is more," a phrase coined by a recent visitor, sums up how Haiti, despite the daily hardships, offers a rare blend of professional and personal rewards. Many have been bitten by the "Haiti bug" after just a few weeks. Those who serve here find themselves inserting Kreyol expressions into their daily parlance or humming the latest Konpa tune. Recently departed Ambassador Ken Merten, who served three tours in Port-au-Prince, said Haiti's appeal is in the beauty of the country, the fascinating culture and the warmth of the people. "Not surprisingly," he noted, "there are a lot of people who come to serve here several times in their career." Indeed, Ambassador Pamela White, who presented her credentials to President Martelly in August, is serving in Haiti for the second time.





RELATED ARTICLE: At a Glance Haiti

Capital: Port-au-Prince

Government type: Republic

Area: 27,750 sq. km.

Comparative area: Slightly smaller than Maryland

Population: 9.8 million

Languages: French and Kreyol (both official)

Religions: Roman Catholic and Protestant; Note: Roughly half of the population practices voodoo.

GDP--per capita: $1,300

Export partners: United States

Export commodities: Apparel, manufactured goods, oils, cocoa, mangoes and coffee

Import partners: Dominican Republic, U.S. and Netherlands Antilles

Import commodities: Food, manufactured goods, machinery and transport equipment

Currency: Gourdes (HTG)

Internet country code: .ht

Source: Country Background Notes

Editor's Note: The authors are entry-level officers who served in the political, consular, economic and public diplomacy sections at Embassy Port-au-Prince.
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Title Annotation:Post of the Month
Author:Armiger, John; DiBiase, Neil; Husbanda, Ajani; Rene-Labrousse, Regine
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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