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Behind chaos, violence, life somehow goes on

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The body lying face down on Rue Travail 3 at sunset was positioned in that sort of drive-by-shooting death-sprawl that has come to characterize so many news photos from here -- limbs akimbo, personal belongings scattered nearby.

There was no tell-tale blood around the body, so a passer-by tried lifting an arm. And suddenly the "victim" was resurrected, as if by the touch of a caring hand. Gilbert Fashon, 19, sat up in his filthy T-shirt and mustered a few words. "Sick and tired" was his rough description of how he had quite simply given up the ghost in the tropical afternoon and dropped to the pavement, out of money, friends and spirit.

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A small bit of charity -- $3 -- squeezed into his hand seemed to offer new hope as he gathered his will and his belongings and dissolved into the teeming city to face another day.

As Haiti labors under a strict international embargo, Mr. Fashon is a symbol of the way this country always seems to adapt to hardship that has been as ever-present a backdrop here as the vibrant Caribbean.

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Headlines out of Haiti are usually about hunger, chaos, violence -- but there is also a day-to-day social order by which 7 million people survive. As anywhere, Haitians try to earn money, go to market, entertain themselves.

The fabric of a normal life exists, even if torn and thin.

You can glimpse it in the gossip of the madam saras -- the ubiquitous street merchant women named after a noisy bird; the traditional pumpkin soup served at Sunday breakfast; the theater marquees advertising American movies; the radio reports of neighborhood soccer scores like the winning streak of a club named Baltimore; the newspaper feature about the young woman who won a color TV for buying the 7 millionth Panther brand condom (slogan: "Use a panther and don't score a goal"); and the year-end school exams that turn families to discussing where they will go for vacation.

Haitian survival runs the gamut from the grimly difficult to splendid comfort.

Vincent, an 11-year-old slum orphan, is an example of the kind of spiritual Darwinism that characterizes the poor in this country. If you're alive, you find a way to make it from meal to meal, or you die.

Like all poor children here, Vincent begs for money. From white outsiders, he begs for something beyond money.

"Rescue me," he requests.

But no one is going to rescue Vincent -- and he makes a life for himself in the fetid maze of the Cite Soleil slum. Possessing only a long T-shirt to cover himself and a green bucket, he hauls drinking water for 20 cents a bucket -- just enough to eat some rice every day and survive.

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Duvalier's fall, Elie's rise

The fall of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, and the subsequent eight years of political upheaval, has led to the financial rise of Lionel Elie.

As foreign journalists flooded into the country for a more or less continuous stay since the overthrow of Mr. Duvalier, Mr. Elie -- a 40ish, unskilled but eager man -- moved from $25-a-day driving stints for cheap newsprint journalists to the full-time $100 a day job as "chief driver" for ABC News.

A somewhat traditional wild-eyed Haitian driver, Mr. Elie is proud of his exploits and boasts of his biggest job ever: going undercover for "Prime Time Live" as a Haitian cane-cutter in the Dominican Republic to videotape evidence of the virtual enslavement of Haitians on plantations there. He made a final harrowing cross-country escape by putting the videotape in his pants and abandoning the camera. For the dangerous mission Mr. Elie received $300 a day, he proudly recalls.

Political adversity has provided a lot of this kind of surprising productivity for many Haitians.

Take gasoline, for example. An intricate economic order has grown out of the Haitian embargo as smuggled gasoline flows to consumers and hundreds earn money to feed themselves.

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Kuwait City -- as Dessalines Boulevard down by the port is now known -- is the central unloading zone for gasoline smuggled in 50-gallon drums across the Dominican border and then piled onto rickety trucks bound for Port-au-Prince. Fumes fill the air for blocks, and the crumbling asphalt feels saturated with gasoline where hundreds of small operators rush out to cars hawking plastic gallon jugs of fuel for about $8 each.

This business, in turn, has spawned its own subsidiary industry: funnel-making. Jacob, a man with a deformed torso but strong arms, works at a table in the Bel-Air slum pounding and shaping metal into funnels.

Jacob, who usually pounds out water cans and buckets for a living, estimates he has made about 1,000 of the gas funnels since demand revved up with the tightening of the embargo in June.

Funnels for sale are displayed along sidewalks all over the city. Ironically, most bear the logo "USA" on them, because they were made from the thin metal scraps of U.S. vegetable oil cans from humanitarian shipments.

Profit-making can crop up at a moment's notice wherever demand is sensed in Haiti. At the airport -- where the scent of money is strongest -- middlemen are on hand to do dirty work.

On one of the last Air France flights out of the country Wednesday, hundreds of people with reservations lined up for the all-important boarding passes. But only those with connections were getting to the front of the line -- $100 would get you the connection to a middle-man with chutzpah who would escort you to the head of the line.

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The good life

Haitian survival in today's tough times can still be splendid at the top.

The top is Petionville and other little villages ascending up the mountain above Port-au-Prince.

The Haitian elite still have money enough to venture forth from their cool, tiled homes to have dinner at fine French restaurants and to gamble at the Casino at El Rancho, owned by the brother of Gen. Henri Namphy, former leader of the military junta.

But the most conspicuous consumption up here is done by the foreign press. Journalists find that just about the only thing their cash cannot buy in Haiti is a working phone. By day they inject U.S. dollars into the economy to guides, translators, drivers, rental car agencies and gasoline smugglers. By night, they sauce their conversation with strong Barbancourt rum and down pate, filet mignon and lobster at places like Chez Gerard and La Souvenance. The embargo does not prohibit food shipments, so people with money can get more or less whatever they want. And all business is done in cash -- with the embargo, U.S.-backed credit does not exist.

One upper-middle-class woman who bemoans the difficulties of the embargo sheepishly says there is one good thing about it: no more traffic jams for her morning commute to the flats of Port-au-Prince because the price of gasoline has kept many people home.

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And for a funkier version of high-life-as-usual, at the Oloffson Hotel -- setting of Graham Greene's cynical novel "The Comedians" -- Aubelin Joliecoeur still holds court 30 years later. The little man who served as model for the character of the political raconteur and dandy, Petit Pierre, still dances with every "mon cher" he can eye in his direction, writes pro-government newspaper columns and eats a meal at the bar while watching CNN.


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