Tiny Police Station Is New Base for Haitian Gov't
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The Cabinet holds meetings outdoors on an uncovered concrete slab under the broiling tropical sun. The communications office is a folding table beneath a tree, and the president greets dignitaries inside a drab, one-story building.
The earthquake that destroyed the Haitian capital's most prominent institutions, including the now-crumpled presidential palace, has left the top layer of government for a country of 9 million people operating in a tiny police station.
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Struggling with a massive humanitarian crisis, officials say they barely notice the humble surroundings.
"I am serving the nation. I don't have any time to make any comment about the location of the president's office," said Yves Mazile, chief of protocol, who was ushering foreign delegations in to see President Rene Preval.
A Haitian flag flies at half-staff inside the driveway of the judicial police headquarters, one of the many reminders of the estimated 200,000 people killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake.
A Foreign Ministry worker with a string of pearls around her neck smiles for visitors, keeping up appearances despite the loose ceiling panels and hanging wires in the concrete police building. The staff was busy Wednesday with visits from Dominican, Korean and Israeli delegations, all of them coordinating aid.
The Haitian Cabinet met outside Wednesday morning to discuss aid because there was no room inside the cramped building. After Preval arrived, his visitors passed through the lobby of flaking blue paint for private meetings.
In a capital that is burying tens of thousands of people in mass graves, officials say they are grateful the Cabinet still is intact.
"We are alive but each of us, like people across the country, have people in our lives who died," said Communications and Culture Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn-Lassegue, who was attending to a couple of dozen local and international reporters in one corner of the driveway.
The police station was chosen because of its proximity to Port-au-Prince's international airport, the entry point for a stream of aid the hemisphere's poorest country is on counting to endure the quake's effects.
The U.S. government takes pains to stress that Haitians are still running the country despite the arrival of some 10,000 American troops. With local police stretched to their limit even before the quake, U.S. soldiers have become a common sight on the streets of Port-au-Prince, even guarding the entrance to the General Hospital.
But the foreigners still call on the government at the police station, if only briefly. The dignitaries stopping by Wednesday included U.S. Ambassador Ken Merten and Edmond Mulet, the acting U.N. envoy to Haiti.
Government officials say only their performance matters -- not their office location -- but at least some Haitians are uncomfortable seeing their leader hidden away.
Preval is being increasingly criticized for not taking a more prominent role. The president has yet to address the nation or publicly tour disaster areas to comfort his people, angering many Haitians.
"The president is not supposed to take refuge in a police station," said Henri Mentor, 35, who was waiting outside in hopes of finding work.
All involved hope the police station is only a temporary base. Jocelyn-Lassegue said the government already is looking for new offices and, eventually, a move into a new national palace.
"It will be rebuilt, but we don't know when," she said.