Four years ago, Thierry Gardère, the president and director general of Rhum Barbancourt, the renowned rum distillery on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, spent an afternoon showing me around. We toured the offices, then went to a warehouse where truckloads of sugarcane were being unloaded into a large yellow machine that squeezed out the juice and discarded the stalks. We climbed a ladder to view the big metal vats where the juice began to ferment, and walked through the storerooms where the rum aged in oak barrels. Outside, we paused at a veranda lined with paving stones and covered by a wooden trellis blossoming with bougainvillea. “This is the place for the tourists,” Gardère said with a shrug. “But unfortunately, they are not coming anymore. Not since the embargo in 1991.”
No, they weren’t. In their stead came an occupation, an insurrection, a kidnapping epidemic, hurricanes, lethally torrential floods, and finally, on January 12, 2010, an earthquake that inflicted this hemisphere’s worst natural disaster in the past two centuries on its poorest inhabitants, leveling whole cities and killing hundreds of thousands.
In the week after the earthquake, I make my way amid the fragmented buildings of Port-au-Prince’s neighborhoods, past the dead laid out in sheets and tarps, the feral dogs digging through the rubble for body parts, and the survivors wandering or waiting in a glaze of grief and shock. In Petit-Goave, farther west, I see a one-legged man sitting on a pile of white limestone-and-concrete rubble, the ruins of a former hotel, breaking the boulder-size blocks with a sledgehammer. It seems very Haiti: a Sisyphean task performed at an insurmountable disadvantage.