Street Corner Negotiations In Haiti

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CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver had a bit of an adventure while reporting in Haiti. And she learned from that experience that all is not quiet in the Caribbean nation following Operation Restore Democracy. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is rbc@cbsnews.com.
Whether it's in the United States or abroad, television journalists always experience a definite awkwardness about getting videotape in poverty-stricken areas.

On the one hand, you are trying to draw attention to the plight of the poor. On the other, you are voyeuristically invading the privacy of those who have so little.

And of all the places I've traveled in 28 years of covering the news, I've never seen people with so little as those we encountered in Haiti. For millions of people, houses are cement block structures with dirt floors, cardboard boxes or grass shacks.

Clean water is nonexistent; people seem to bathe, rinse and wash their clothes in sewage-laden streams. Paved roads are rare. In the countryside, people use wobbly looking mules, donkeys and horses to transport meager goods. Sometimes you'll see a man straining to pull a heavy wheelbarrow.

Children run ragged or just plain naked. As you pass, people point to their bellies, as if to say, "I am hungry."

In city markets flies are everywhere, and the stench of rotting food and human waste is unbearable. People mash themselves into and on top of trucks known as tap taps, sitting, standing and crouching. Every gas station is guarded by someone with a gun.

In fact even a clinic in a slum neighborhood had an armed guard. And it was in that neighborhood that our CBS News reporting team had a firsthand glimpse of how lawless life can be on the streets of Port Au Prince, Haiti's capital.

We had been in the clinic interviewing a doctor who was talking about how little had changed in the five years since the United States and other Western nations forced out Raoul Cedras, the military dictator who had seized power in the country. When U.S. troops came in, the people hoped for economic improvement, a chance to make a better life.

That has not happened, and now the U.S. support mission in Haiti is officially ending, although reserve units and National Guard troops will still carry out training exercise in other parts of the country.

Haitians say that they themselves are to blame for many of their own problems. There may be more freedom now, but power in the land is still held by corrupt, incompetent and quarreling government officials. But many Haitians also wonder why the United States has been so unable to help their country help itself.

And in the clinic, the children suffering from a variety of infectious diseases are a marked reminder of why change is so critical.

Outside the clinic, we took some shts to show how depressed the whole neighborhood is. Afterward, I began doing what's known as an "on camera," saying a few words about how we had come to look at whether five years of U.S. efforts in Haiti had made any difference.

A few folks had gathered around our team producer, James Houtrides, cameraman Mario DeCarvalho and soundman Manny Garcia. That happens frequently.

But suddenly, there seemed to be a problem. I could see Mario, who has had many assignments in Haiti over the years, talking with a couple of tough-looking guys. He seemed to be speaking in French (Haitians speak French, and a dialect known as Creole), and he was gesturing at the camera, offering to let them look through the eyepiece themselves.

Then suddenly Mario shrugged his shoulders, took the tape out of the camera and handed it to one of the men. Then they went over to our car with him and took another tape. I knew that the man must have threatened the crew in some way, but I didn't know what he said.

So when he came rushing by me with the tapes, I started to follow him, "Monsieur, s'il vous plait," I implored, asking him in French to please give us back our work.

"Rita, please come here now," I heard Mario say. And the tone in his voice made me turn immediately. The crowd was still milling about the two four-wheel drive vehicles we had rented to transport us and our camera gear.

"I gave him the tapes because he had a gun," Mario said. "We better go now." We and our Haitian drivers did indeed climb into the cars and inch our way through the crowds and out of the neighborhood.

Later I learned that the man who took the tapes had simply pulled up his T-shirt and pulled a chrome-plated .45 out of his jeans pocket. He had apparently been angry that we didn't have "permission" to be in the neighborhood.

Our driver, Thomas, was convinced that the thugs who took our tape were only low-level street hoods, and so he went to find the big boss of the neighborhood.

Mario, Manny and Thomas went back to try to negotiate for the tape, but we never did get it. All of us got the impression that rather this being random street crime, there was some belief that our story was going to be unfavorable to some political group, and that's why we had been relieved of our videotape.

I tell you this tale not to focus on what happened to us, but to give you an example of how insecure and brooding things are in this neighboring country, just 600 miles off our coast.

We called our "invasion" of Haiti, Operation Restore Democracy. But there is a great chance that in the end, we will have succeeded only in replacing one set of bullies with another.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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