Lines and Tempers as Haitians Queue for Cash

Published: January 26, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Thousands of Haitians lined up at money transfer offices here on Tuesday, crowding windows and arguing with the police as they waited as long as 10 hours to collect small cash infusions wired from relatives abroad.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Customers waited in line outside a local money transfer office in Port-au-Prince on Monday.

Haitian government officials said they were still trying to determine how much money was pouring in, but after two weeks without remittances because of the earthquake, there appeared to be a significant spike, which they welcomed.

“In Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York, Haitian Americans are helping with their money and their time,” said Elisabeth Delatour Préval, Haiti’s first lady. “They are shocked with what has happened to us.”

Even without an earthquake, two weeks without money from abroad would push many families closer to destitution. Only a small minority in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, have enough money for a bank account. And since the 1990s, the Haitian economy has turned increasingly reliant on cash wire transfers sent to relatives by the one to two million Haitians who have left for the United States, the Dominican Republic and other countries.

The World Bank has estimated that remittances make up as much as 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, triple the level as in 1998, and more than twice the earnings from exports.

Each year, Haitians abroad send back more than $1.5 billion, and in small amounts: most families receive about $150 a month, according to one World Bank report.

The money is usually used for basic necessities, and in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake on Jan. 12, the need has increased along with the wait times and the tension.

There simply are not enough open offices. Although some companies have relaxed identification rules to expedite the process, limited electricity and access to cash, along with collapsed buildings, have kept most offices from reopening. MoneyGram International said 40 of its 130 money-transfer agents had reopened, but only 8 of those were in or around Port-au-Prince.

The results have been crowds and complaints.

At a C.A.M. money transfer office in the city’s Nazon section on Tuesday afternoon, at least 300 people, in two lines running in opposite directions on a busy street, shoved, shouted and tried to stay patient.

Natasha George, 29, said she had been there since 3 a.m. waiting for money from her brother, who works at a money transfer office in New York. She had no idea how much cash was coming, but she knew it would not be enough: it had to be shared among her family of eight.

Bernadette Norbrum, 38, stood on the opposite line, shifting from foot to foot, and looking angry. She said she had come from a neighborhood on the city’s edge, arriving in the dark at 4 a.m. She still had a long way to go — about 50 people stood in front of her. And when the police walked someone closer to the door, she shouted in outrage, tossing her hands in the air. “They’re just helping their friends and family,” she said. “Or maybe they’re getting paid.”

With each passing minute, she became more anxious. She was waiting for $70 from a sister in Miami, whose 18-year-old daughter was in a local hospital, awaiting a prescription. Ms. Norbrum said she had already seen another sister die after the earthquake because she did not have money for treatment.

“The problem is, I lost someone already because I couldn’t get her medication,” Ms. Norbrum said. “Now I might lose another because of the delay.”

Throughout the line in Nazon, and others throughout the city, the demands and frustration have been expanding ever since the first money transfer offices reopened a few days ago.

At another C.A.M. office on Monday, there were hundreds of people jockeying to get inside, as Haitian police officers walked a select few to the front. The crowd roared with outrage, to no avail, and those who exited brought forth another complaint. They said the transfer company was charging them a “disaster fee” of 10 percent.

“They are stealing from us and I need it badly,” said Louise Patricia Saint Rose, in her third day of waiting in line for money from her husband in New Jersey. “My daughter was injured. We’re sleeping in the street — I need to buy water and food.”

Elsewhere, the long lines held women with bandaged legs, wincing in pain; Haitians of all ages squeezed together from surging crowds behind them and mothers praying that their sons had sent $100 not $40.

Many were dealing with both personal and economic loss. At a Western Union office on the airport road, Chlony Jean, 33, a taxi driver who twirled his beard and spoke slowly like a philosopher, said he had not worked in 15 days because his company’s employees were all killed in the earthquake. He escaped unharmed, but his daughter did not. She was only 11, named Daeshley, and she died when her school collapsed. Mr. Jean looked away. That was all he could say about her.

“It’s just to buy food,” he said of the money he planned to collect. “It’s for the basic things.”

Marc Lacey contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, and Jack Healy from New York.


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