An in-depth history of Cite Soleil

Cite Soleil was first established as “Cite Simone” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Known as the biggest slum in Haiti, Cite Soleil is home to about 500,000 inhabitants, the majority of which live in precarious conditions.

The first housing project in Cite Soleil was conceived by President Paul Eugene Magloire and executed by President Francois Duvalier. The first two projects built by Duvalier were named 1st Cite Simone and 2nd Cite Simone (after his wife, Simone Duvalier). Afterwards, a third project was built, named 3BB – no one is entirely sure of the reason behind the name choice, except that it was the 3rd housing project.

Two arsons in downtown Port au Prince drove many people to Cite Soleil. Two neighborhoods, Cite Rouge and La Saline, were destroyed totally by the fires. The first fire took place in 1963, and rumor has it that Duvalier had ordered the fire to be set by the Tonton Macoutes,  his secret police, in order to clear the land to build a shopping center. This project was never realized, despite the great material loss caused by the fires.

There were two new housing projects in the late 1960s: Boston was recently established to house people living in and Brooklyn was underway. But the second fire in 1968 pushed so many people into Cite Soleil that the Brooklyn housing project was finished with an anarchic speed. Under the leadership of Father Arthur Volel, Madame Max Adolphe gave materials to construct lean-to shelters to house victims of the second fire.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier built a housing project near 3BB named Cite Jean Claude, which was renamed Cite Lumiere after the end of the dictatorship. During the same period, Baby Doc established a neighborhood around the local wharf that was somewhat of a privileged zone – people had to give between 3,750 and 5,000 gourdes (which was around $1,000 at the time – and represented a small fortune). Given this, the construction in this area was concrete and built according to certain norms, and the streets were well planned and laid-out.

In the early 1980s, baby Doc built Project Drouillard (not to be confused with Drouillard, another community in northern Cite Soleil).  During this same period, houses were built in an area that is now called Bois Neuf.

In the mid-1980s, Jean Claude Duvalier built several social housing projects: Lintheau 1 and 2. These neighborhoods were named after a local chief named “Lintheau”. The construction projects were not finished before the end of the Duvalier regime; however, the inauguration of Lintheau 1 was sped up so it took place in January 1986. These housing projects were originally planned for residents of La Saline, but after the end of the regime, they were flooded by residents of Cite Simone.

During the 1970s, Dr. Carlos Boulos started to give free health care thanks to the Arab Cooperation Project. The Center Haitiano-Arab was combined with Plan International – an NGO that works in education and construction – to become the Centre Haitiano Arabe Plan International (CHAPI). Dr. Carlo Boulos also cooperated with a group of nuns called Les Filles de la Charité under the leadership of Sister Helene Vanderberg, who had built another health center in Brooklyn. This cooperation gave birth to the St. Catherine Hospital, which was in its heyday in the 1990s.

Les Filles de la Charité also worked in the domain of education. Sister Adeline established the Foyer Culturel Saint Vincent de Paul in Boston, which was a primary school, professional school, and cultural center (there were even music lessons). After the death of Carlo Boulos, his son Reginald Boulos took over the Center for Development (CDS). With the help of Boulos and les Filles de la Charité, Saint Vincent de Paul become a modern school, and its secondary school was classified as one of the 10 best schools in Port au Prince during the 1990s.

After the fall of the Duvalier regime, there was a tendency to erase anything associated with the Duvaliers. Cite Simone became Cite Soleil as an homage to Radio Soleil, a leader in the anti-Duvalierist media struggle. Streets that had been called OVIDE were renamed Soleil, and Cite Jean Claude was renamed Cite Lumiere.

At its founding, Cite Soleil was a suburb of the municipality of Port au Prince. In 1983, it was transferred to the municipality of Delmas. In April of 2002, a presidential decree from Jean Bertrand Aristide made Cite Soleil its own municipality. The first appointed mayor was Fritz Joseph, and in December 2006, Cite Soleil elected its first mayor, Wilson Louis. After a demand from CONOCS, the Collective of Leaders of Cite Soleil, Cite Soleil was allowed to send a representative to the lower chamber of Parliament. This first representative was Salibar Jean.

Cite Soleil is known throughout the world in a negative light. Increasingly negative press shines a light on everything bad about the Cite, and ignores everything positive. Cite Soleil is often referred to as the “34 neighborhoods”, which is a reference to the 34 chiefs of armed groups in 2002.

Misery and violence are two common terms used to discuss Cite Soleil. In truth, there is misery and violence in Cite Soleil, but not only misery and violence. Cite Soleil is a municipality that has two electricity companies (Sogener and EPower), two cement factories (CINA and Varreux), two soda manufacturing plants (Sejourné and La Corounne), 30 wells that that provide water to the majority of the capital, and long ocean-front, and 4 ports.

Despite these riches, most of the commune faces real poverty. The majority of the population of cite Soleil are children and young people who are victims of a poor educational system. And without jobs and without hope, poverty sinks in. Charity has become permanently installed since the 1970s with a steady flow of religious missionaries and international NGOs. The abandonment of Cite Soleil by the Haitian government completes the picture of poverty that we are painting.

And we cannot finish the history of Cite Soleil without talking about the violence that rules here. Violence has been a constant in the municipality since the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986. The first inter-neighborhood battle was in June of 1986 between Wharf Soleil and Lintheau 2. Other neighborhoods like La Saline and Brooklyn came to the aid of Lintheau 2 to defeat Wharf, and fires were set to the houses.

The height of the violence was during Operation Bagdad 1 and Operation Bagdad 2, from August 2004 to March 2006. Since then, politicians and others in power have used Cite Soleil as a laboratory of violence, and young people have learned that violence is the quickest way to achieve fortune and fame.

-Jean Enock Joseph

Above: excerpt of "Le Moniteur" from February of 1970 that describes a fishermen's cooperative in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cite Simone. (from Duke University archives)