The horrifying human and material destruction wrought by the earthquake that wrecked Haiti on January 12, 2010 inspired impassioned humanitarian responses from around the world, linking diverse chains of concerned citizens spanning political and socioeconomic categories. These chains will hopefully pull Haiti back from the abyss. One link among these chains is veteran political activist Russell Pelle, whose latest cause is certainly his greatest—the Haitian Memorial Pyramid.
The Pyramid project encompasses many things at once, which is what has made it so potent in the public sphere. The earthquake killed at least a quarter-million people in a matter of seconds, crushed beneath the rubble of buildings built to third-world standards and pulverized by seismic shocks. The body-count overwhelmed any existing emergency capacity—it’s not certain that such an emergency could even be handled effectively in the United States—and forced a Haitian government that was itself teetering on the edge of illegitimacy to make an almost-unthinkable decision: In lieu of normal burial practices, most of Haiti’s death were bulldozed into mass-graves on the outskirts of Port-au-Price. The site is considered hallowed ground by some, a symbol of the country’s weakness and systemic failure to others.
Pelle’s plan is at once audacious and amazingly practical. They will collect the rubble that remains around the earthquake zone, haul it away and use it to construct a gigantic pyramid at the site of the mass-grave. The pyramid’s aesthetics would recall the spirit of the indigenousAmericas: “A stairway, aligned with the sun every January 12, ascends to the summit. Passing under a glass rainbow archway set aglow by the sun, visitors approach the eternal flame. Trees and greenery on the terraces of the pyramid symbolize life—and the reforestation of Haiti.”
When finished, the Haitian Memorial Pyramid should be one of the country’s major tourist attractions, as well as a place where the people can own their pain and take control of how this unspeakable human tragedy will be perceived by future generations. Perhaps most importantly, in the short-term, the project (which could be potentially beHaiti’s largest employer) will not only provide jobs for local workers, but accelerate the snail-like pace of cleanup activity inPort-au-Prince.
The extent of material waste from resources donated by citizens of the world, and the slowness of the redevelopment over the past year and a half, is a flat-out disgraceful debacle. Most reports say that over 500,000 people still live in the camps, but Pelle’s experience suggests the number is more like a million. Those who can get out and try to rebuild their lives have nowhere to do so, because most of the rubble—some 33 million metric tons—remains where it fell. The pace of redevelopment has remained still as sluggish as health care, crime control or the food situation.
Frankly, the most amazing thing is that there hasn’t been some other major humanitarian tragedy (like cholera or malaria) since then. Haitians have been catching the bum’s rush for generations, alternating between dictatorship and chaos. Why? “The ruling class’ wealth is based on buying and reselling imports, so they have no interest in domestic production or agriculture,” Pelle says. The US has been extremely deficient about its responsibilities to a country it essentially sold into French tyranny.
Citizens of Florida have, of course, been always ahead of the curve on theHaitisituation, as our state (particularlyMiami) is the gateway to that whole region. Led by a brilliant contingent of Haitian-American artists, writers, musicians, businessmen and academics (including our own Overstreet Ducasse), money has been raised, connections have been made, and the groundwork has been laid for long-term political and economic means to bring long-delayed social justice to the people of Haiti.
But first, they’ve got to move that rubble. Pelle has partnered with Jeffrey Foster, a fellow Jacksonville resident (and designer of the Girvin Road landfill) who’s leading the design team, as well as treasurer Roland Wasembeck. They will be working in collaborations with Haitian consultants, utilizing a preponderance of their local labor. It may take 10 to 15 years, and millions of dollars, to finish the project, but it’s potential long-term benefit to the country makes it well worth the investment. The site is slated to also include a botanical garden and marine sanctuary built by other groups adjacent to the pyramid. When completed, it will be 100% owned byHaiti itself.
The astonishing disconnect between the billions pledged for Haitian relief and recovery, and the stunning failure of redevelopment efforts to date, suggests even bigger challenges ahead for people like Pelle. For some, Haitiis just the newest, fashionable form of social outreach, and that’s fine. But for Pelle, this whole thing evolves organically from years of direct involvement in Haitian affairs. “It’s an amazing, fascinating place,” he says. He’s spent most summers there since 1996; his most recent trip (Aug. 7-14) was the second one this year, and his 16th in 15 years. They originally planned to spend 15 days there, but finances compelled some truncation; the estimated cost for two people to make that trip for two weeks was $6,450.
Concerns about the approach of TS Emily, which was slated to approachHaitithat very weekend, did nothing to dissuade the team; it was their most important session yet. They have now met so far with a number of Haitian officials, including former PM Michele Pierre-Louis, current PM Jean-Max Bellerive (whose successor has not yet been chosen), the Minister of Tourism, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and several mayors and senators of the Port au Prince area. Their political bases are well-covered.
The Haitian Memorial Pyramid holds nonprofit status in the state ofFlorida. The group has documented their work via Powerpoint on several occasions. These materials are available online, at HaitianPyramid.org; they will also deliver the message directly to groups interested in participating. (Donations via PayPal: email@example.com.) By partnering with others working to advance the same people, options for synergy and symbiosis abound.
The project is intended to be a bipartisan effort, stripped bare of petty ideological concerns; one hopes it can remain that way. Pelle and company reached out to heavy-hitters across the ideological spectrum, and got strong feedback from Bill Nelson and Corrine Brown. The North Florida Central Labor Council (which began reaching out toHaitithe day after the quake) was first to endorse the project. “This project and others like it not only offer needed help; they also serve as constant reminders that there is so much more that must be done. … By supporting the Haitian Memorial Pyramid Project, we are provided the opportunity to help this nation become whole again. It is a worthwhile endeavor”, wrote Mayor Alvin Brown; he reportedly expressed some interest in introducing them to Bill Clinton, whose name is virtually synonymous with the recovery effort in Haiti, and State Senator Tony Hill (who also works as Mayor Brown’s legislative liaison) also supports the project.
Having made a good, quick start to the project, Pelle looks forward to the years of hard work ahead. “Anything for the revolution, anything for the project”, he says, with the kind of positive attitude he’ll need to get it done.
firstname.lastname@example.org; August 22, 2011