Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 5, 2004

Dashed dreams on a borrowed lot in Haiti
A former prisoner and activist developed a youth athletic complex. Now the owners want the land back.

Bobby Duval.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Bobby Duval, a former political prisoner and human-rights activist, wanted to put his beliefs into practice. So eight years ago he opened a youth sports complex on a trash-strewn lot near Cite Soleil, a vast slum on the edge of the capital.

Duval is a rarity in Haiti - a scion of the nation's light-skinned bourgeois reaching out to the poor, black masses. His project received a lot of attention - journalists trekked to the grassy oasis, and HBO broadcast an uplifting special about Athletics of Haiti.

"You know, I'm not supposed to be here, in this place," said Duval, 50, surveying the soccer fields where players practiced on a recent muggy afternoon. "I'm out of my sphere. But it's my country and I want to do it, you know."

But Duval's project was conceived in more idealistic times, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the "people's priest," promised to elevate the downtrodden. Aristide's popularity waned, and he was forced to flee Haiti in February after a rebellion threatened to unravel the poorest nation in the Americas. U.N. troops now maintain a fragile peace.

With the departure of the left-leaning Aristide, Duval and other Haitians are coming to terms with dashed dreams. Duval's project has been living on borrowed time - and, it turns out, borrowed real estate.

The wealthy owners who grudgingly lent 15 acres upon which Duval built Athletics of Haiti - he essentially had taken the land without asking - are reclaiming their turf. Now that Aristide is out of the picture, they want Duval gone.

He is not going quietly.

"I'm not happy about it, and I really think it's unfair," he said.

The dispute has gone public. A local journalist took Duval's side, calling the landowners the "morally repugnant elite."

But Duval is discovering that the fiery rhetoric that once scored points with Haiti's rulers now carries little weight. The landowners have dug in their heels, suggesting Duval is a thief for squatting on their land.

Even his supporters believe the winner-take-all passion Duval brings to sports is alienating the rich people whose gifts sustain his program.

"He is cutting his nose to save his face," said Philippe R. Armand, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti. "Those guys asked for their land back, and he's making an issue of it. Why is he trying to antagonize them? He's behaving in a way that is scaring anybody who wants to donate to his organization."

That Duval's project has reached this precipice is partly due to his naivete - he always knew the land did not belong to him. But it is also symptomatic of a larger problem in Haiti, where society has long been cleaved along class lines and riven by suspicions about political motives.

"There is no culture of compromise in Haiti," said Edouard Baussan, a banker who has advised Duval to be less confrontational. "Everybody views compromise as a defeat. They get in this mind-set - 'I will not back down' - and before long, nothing is accomplished."

Baussan has offered to help, donating six acres of his own land for new facilities. Though the parcel is smaller and in a worse location, Duval can carry on his mission. But Duval says rebuilding is costly, and he wants his landlords to pay for developing the new site.

"It's not often you find somebody like Bobby," said Baussan, whose family owns a shipping firm. "We don't have enough people of our social background, our education, who can arrange projects like this."

Duval says the current feud is rooted in the animosities among the privileged class that lives in Petionville, the hillside suburb overlooking Port-au-Prince. From their mansions, the lighter-complexioned Haitians who trace their roots more to Europe than to Africa have long lorded over Haiti.

Duval was born into such a family. His father made his fortune manufacturing auto parts, and sent him to North America for an education. He graduated from the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne in 1971 before attending college in Massachusetts and Canada, where he was a soccer star.

His life veered off course when he returned to Haiti in 1976. Awakened to the plight of the poor, he denounced President Jean-Claude Duvalier and was jailed for 17 months. He saw dozens of other political prisoners die before the government released him under pressure from the Carter administration. When he was freed, Duval weighed 90 pounds, less than half his normal weight.

"I suppose spending a year and a half in prison in Haiti at the time - he almost died - changes a person," Baussan said.

Duval indeed had changed - radically. He was enraged by the silence of his Petionville peers, and vowed to change Haitian society. He wrote a book about his imprisonment and, while working for the next two decades in the family business, he also became active as a human-rights advocate.

In 1996, he created Athletics of Haiti to provide daily training in soccer, basketball and track, as well as healthy meals, academic tutoring, and payment of school fees, to promising athletes who could not afford the programs available to privileged Haitian youths.

"I wanted to test my convictions, to come and work and sweat with people here, in the smell and the dirt," he said. "I wanted to do something real."

A group of Catholic priests invited Duval to set up on vacant industrial land next to their residence, near Port-au-Prince International Airport.

The property was a mess. It had been used as a dump for bottles; it also contained the ruins of several houses, wrecked by rampaging slum youths. Duval cleaned up the rubbish and planted grass.

A year after he started, Duval said, the landowners informed him the athletic fields were on private property - but they let him use it until further notice.

So Duval built a concrete wall around the lot and rehabbed the houses to serve as offices and dormitories for players and coaches. He bought four buses to shuttle players from the slums. The program thrived. He has to hold tryouts to limit enrollment to 650, mostly boys.

Now, the landlords want the land back. Duval says it's their revenge on him for betraying his class. They say they simply want to develop the property.

"We are a country of rules, and you must play by the rules," said Francois Dresse, one of the owners, who declined to comment further on the record. Dresse, a Belgian manufacturer, serves as Belgium's consul to Haiti.

Duval admits he understood that the arrangement was temporary. But the expectation of permanence had taken root.

"All I wanted was to just use the land," he said. "I hoped that once the program got going... that they would, like, carry me on."

In recent months, as the exchanges grew more emotional, one of the landowners painted the 10 Commandments on a wall facing the complex, highlighting "Thou Shall Not Steal."

"They don't want to confront me directly," said Duval.

His friends and family - his ex-wife and two children live in the United States - advised him to move on.

But he can't seem to let go - not only of the real estate, but of the hope that Haiti's vast imbalance of resources will become more equitable.

"The sentiment of the elites is that business is going back to normal now," Duval said. "But when are they going to realize that Aristide wasn't the problem himself?

"Aristide was a thermometer of social discontent and social despair, man." home page   
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