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A fight for vacant land in Haiti

CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti - The sun was beating down on the rocky cactus plain when men with machetes came for Menmen Villase, nine months' pregnant, shoved her onto her bulging stomach and sliced up the plastic tarp that sheltered her and her four children.

The family was one of thousands of earthquake homeless who had come to this Manhattan-sized stretch of disused sugarcane land between the sea and barren mountains north of Port-au-Prince, seeking refuge from overflowing camps in the city.

But this real estate is earmarked for building a new Haiti.

Villase had walked into one of the fights over land, rooted in Haiti's history of slavery, occupation and upheaval, that have served to slow recovery to a near-standstill in the six months since the earthquake leveled much of the capital and killed as many as 300,000 people.

The government, already weak before the magnitude-7 quake and still hobbled by its aftermath, is trying to build anew in places like Corail-Cesselesse, a nearly empty swath of land that begins about 9 miles north of the capital. But the effort is paralyzed by disorganization, bitter rivalries and private deals being struck behind its back.

Multiple families claim title to almost every scrap of real estate. Already one reconstruction official has been forced to step down for steering a public project to his company's private land at Corail-Cesselesse. Wealthy landowners vow the "new Haiti" will become yet another vast slum unless the government rebuilds on their terms.

Caught in the middle are the homeless, looking to grab a patch of ground from the thugs hired to keep them away. Even facing machetes, Villase had to be dragged from her flimsy shelter.

"I didn't want them to take the tent away," she recalled.

In the moments after the disaster, all Port-au-Prince began pouring into twilit streets. Homes, still collapsing, had in a moment become death traps. Camps rose on public and private spaces, parks and golf courses.

But an estimated 26 million cubic yards of rubble continues to make most of the capital impassable.

Most of the $3.1 billion pledged for humanitarian aid has paid for field hospitals, plastic tarps, bandages and food, plus salaries, transportation and upkeep of relief workers. Hundreds of millions have yet to be spent, with agencies such as the American Red Cross saying they want to avoid dumping money into half-baked projects.

Everyone bemoans the lack of progress. But Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive says the government needs to proceed with caution so it doesn't simply replicate the pre-quake slums.

In "the last 30 years there was no planning with any action," he said. "What we didn't want to do is launch any demagogic, visible action [just to] prove we are working."


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