A portrait of Haitians trying to survive without a government

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CAP-HAÏTIEN, Haiti — Most of northern Haiti has escaped the violence and anarchy that has engulfed much of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

But ever since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in 2021, this region has felt the slow crumbling of the Haitian state. These days, government offices are mostly closed and government services, including electricity, don’t exist. It has left Haitians to fend for themselves.

These are some of their stories.

Moncher Metina

Moncher Metina has spent her whole 65 years of life in a rural part of Limonade in northern Haiti.

She remembers when she was a kid, she would swim in the rivers that have now dried up. She remembers this was fertile land. In truth, she says, back in the day, the people in Limonade didn’t even think about the government. They always had sufficient rain, always sufficient food. This place was full of lush rice fields.

But over the past decade or so, the climate has changed and the rains have become unpredictable.

“We’ve missed the harvest for pistachios, beans and yam,” she says.

When she was young, they produced everything they ate right here. But these days, she says, they have to eat imported rice. In Haiti, rice is a staple, and about 80% of it is now imported from the United States.

Moncher Metina walks in her hometown of Limonade, Haiti, on March 17, 2024.

Octavio Jones for NPR

Louisiana Francilo (left) and Wilky Deranci pump water from a public well in Limonade, Haiti, on March 17, 2024.

Octavio Jones for NPR

Metina shakes her head. The only thing they need to change that is a few wells and a few pumps from the government, and this land could be lush again.

“But we don’t have a government to do these kind of things,” she says. “Even if there was a local authority, they don’t do anything.”

She points to the dirt roads, full of potholes, some parts of them washed out by water long ago. “The government did nothing,” she says. “They do nothing for us.”

Metina walks across a field. She looks small in the middle of its vastness. This is her land, but planting anything here would be risky.

Her neighbor, Antoine Jean Bellami, says he just planted 1,000 plantain trees, but they’re all starting to yellow because it has not yet rained.

“When people work here, they realize it’s worthless,” he says. “And facing that discouragement, young people just up and leave. They go to the Dominican Republic to get humiliated.”

Metina’s own son left for neighboring Dominican Republic about a year ago, and that was the last time she heard from him. It’s the story of this region. Metina’s smile fades from her face. She lowers her gaze. She lowers her voice.

“I just hope that he’s around,” she says. “I would have known if he was dead. If he had died, I would have felt it.”

Emmanuel Desir

Cables of all kinds drape across Emmanuel Desir’s living room.

“When people come in here, they say, ‘Wow, you’re an engineer!’ and I say, ‘No, I am Haitian,'” he says laughing.

The 41-year-old is actually an electrician. But here in Cap-Haïtien, electricians have become lifesavers. Cap-Haïtien is Haiti’s second-largest city, but for more than two years now, it has been living off the grid. Electricity was always patchy, but following the 2021 assassination of President Moïse the state electricity company collapsed and stopped providing power.

Emmanuel Desir, who works as an electrician, poses for a photo at his home on the outskirts of Limonade, Haiti, on March 17, 2024.

Octavio Jones for NPR

Desir says, now, he spends every day installing solar panels. He installs little systems that run about $150 and can charge a cellphone, a laptop and run a few lights. And he also installs systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They harness the power of the sun to run refrigerators and air conditioners.

There are some charity groups helping to install solar panels in Cap-Haïtien, but most of the work is done by private companies like Desir’s.

A big problem, he says, is that $150 is a lot of money in Haiti, a country where more than 60% of the population lives with less than $4 a day, according to a World Bank estimate.

A charging station for cellphones and laptop devices is seen at a bar in downtown Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, on March 17, 2024.

Octavio Jones for NPR

Rod Augustin measures dimensions for solar installation at a bar in Limonade, Haiti, on March 17, 2024.

Octavio Jones for NPR

On a practical level, that means if you don’t have a solar panel, you can’t charge the essentials, including a cellphone. So, across Cap-Haïtien there are charging stations for phones and laptops. Desir set up a charging center for his neighbors at his home. The lone street light in the neighborhood takes power from his solar inverter.

“Everyone always says, electricity is the base of development; it’s the first stage of development,” he says.

He’s proud that he is helping Haitians power their homes. But sometimes, he says, Haitians end up wasting a day simply trying to charge a cellphone.

Commander Minis Derius

Just along Haiti’s northern coast, in Ouanaminthe, Haitians have decided to take matters into their own hands.

About a year ago, private citizens decided to move forward with a long-planned canal that would divert some water from a shared river with the Dominican Republic to a canal designed to irrigate vast farmlands in northern Haiti.

The canal near completion in the border city of Ouanaminthe, Haiti. The Dominican Republic protested over the project, which would divert water from a river shared by the neighboring countries.

Octavio Jones for NPR

Thousands of Haitians volunteered their time to complete the canal, and members of an armed environmental police force decided to defect from the government to patrol the project.

Minis Derius, a member of the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas, or B-SAP, carries an assault rifle as he walks along the canal’s concrete retention walls.

“The government didn’t do anything,” he says. “If this was being done by the Haitian state, it probably would have never gotten done.”

Construction workers are in finishing the canal project in the border city of Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Once completed, the nearby farming community hopes to benefit from the canal’s water, aiding in the cultivation and yield of their crops.

Octavio Jones for NPR

The canal near completion in the border city of Ouanaminthe, Haiti, where construction workers are diligently working to finish the project. Once completed, the nearby farming community will benefit from the canal’s water, aiding in the cultivation and yield of their crops.

Octavio Jones for NPR

This project has been controversial. The Dominican Republic shut down its border in protest, and then Haiti’s de facto prime minister, Ariel Henry, ordered the environmental police force to leave the construction site. Henry fired their leader, but the B-SAP simply ignored him and the construction kept moving forward.

“We will stand with the people,” Derius says. “Although we are a part of the state — we’re a legal body, a legal force, we come from the government — we cannot abandon the people.”

To Derius, this project speaks to two realities in Haiti: first, of a dysfunctional government that can’t seem to provide the basics for its people; and second, how the Haitian people always find ways to survive despite their government.

He says that in some ways, Haitians have found hope in projects like the canal.

“It shows that if we put our heads together, we unite, there’s a lot we can do,” Derius says.

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