PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In the days, months and years that followed Haiti's powerful earthquake, the condemned National Palace slowly sunk upon itself. The white presidential building became a twin symbol — of the disaster's devastation and of the government's dysfunction.
Before year's end, President Michel Martelly's administration and the aid group started by Hollywood star Sean Penn will demolish the remains of the Beaux Arts structure so they can build a successor, although officials are still trying to figure out what will follow.
The government initially said Tuesday that it would take two months to complete the demolition; by Wednesday, the estimate had risen to three months.
Some of the surviving pieces of the palace will be carried away by hand by local preservationists. The rest will be destroyed with a backhoe and other heavy machinery.
Penn's group, J/P HRO, has volunteered to do the job for free and plans to hire a local firm for the use of equipment. The total value of the project is still being worked out, J/P HRO's executive director Ron Baldwin said.
Inside the crumbled National Palace, spiral staircases, catwalks and floors creak and groan. Heavy shards of concrete dangle by flimsy rebar. Ferns climb deeply cracked walls. An exercise machine sits outside next to dusty piles of plaques that inaugurated projects built by former President Rene Preval, the only Haitian leader to complete two terms.
Next to the presidential office a Jacuzzi-like bathtub holds a pile of rebar. In another office, a cardboard box contains a handwritten letter to Mildred Toussaint Aristide, wife of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected Haiti's president twice and ousted from office both times.
For many the remains are a metaphor for Haiti's ruling elite — an opulent realm alien to the Caribbean nation's poor, but also vulnerable and fleeting. Few of the palace's occupants have finished their presidential terms since Haitians won independence from France in 1804, the leaders' time cut short by natural deaths but also coups, popular uprisings and, in at least one case, an angry mob.