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Opinion: Haiti’s roller-coaster public image

It's been from hip, to not cool at all, and back again. Searching for a silver lining in the earthquake aftermath.

A Haitian woman crosses a street of Port-au-Prince, Feb. 1, 2006. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

MIAMI — There was a time when Haiti was hip. Bill and Hillary Clinton honeymooned there in 1975. The Oloffson Hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince, still has a room named the "Mick Jagger Suite" after he visited. Club Med even operated a hotel on the west coast.

Then came the political violence and Haiti fell off the map of civilization.

Could it be that January's earthquake has made Haiti cool again?

Spurred on by compelling wall-to-wall coverage on CNN, led by its metrosexual anchorman Anderson Cooper, a surprising number of Hollywood celebrities, singers and athletes — from Jagger and Jaylo to actors Ben Stiller and Rainn Wilson, have opened their wallets and encouraged other to donate.

A star-studded two-hour telethon on Larry King Live last week raised $9 million. That will surely be dwarfed by the multi-network telethon hosted by George Clooney on Friday. Dozens of the most famous actors and music stars in the world — dressed not to impress but in varying shades of brown and black — performed to raise money for relief efforts.

So, is this just the knee-jerk outpouring of sympathy for a disaster struck nation that will fade with time, or is there something more to this phenomenon? Is Haiti back on the map? It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I’d like to think so.

To be sure, the disaster in Haiti is on a scale not witnessed in this hemisphere before. To put it in perspective, the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 claimed 10,000 lives, hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, maybe 12,000. The death toll in Haiti could hit 150,000 the Haitian government says, with 300,000 homes destroyed and 1.5 million people left homeless.

Those are statistics that certainly cry out for help. But something else has happened here. This may sound odd considering the awful scenes of devastation over the last 10 days, but at the same time, in 21 years covering Haiti I have never seen the country portrayed on television in such a favorable light.

Now there’s a new human face of Haiti: women in the streets calming their nerves in song; a rescued woman singing a hymn as she is pulled from the rubble; or the weak smile of a small child on a stretcher. Then there are the orphans.

In the past Haiti has always been depicted as a wretched country mostly responsible for its own ills, due to political misrule and a predatory business class, dubbed the "MREs" or "Morally Repugnant Elite."

Haiti was the "basket case"; its very name evoked fear. Its violent streets were populated by goon squads with scary names, such as "Tonton Macoutes," in the 1980s and latterly the dreaded slum gangs, or chimeres.

During my first trip to Haiti I stayed at the Oloffson, a magnificent gingerbread house made famous by author Graham Greene who made it the setting for his 1966 novel, "The Comedians."

Ironically, Haiti’s "golden years" came under the despotic rule of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc." Haiti enjoyed a brief period as a destination for the rich and famous, including Aristotle and Jackie Onassis — a collector of Haitian artwork. Jagger supposedly wrote some of the Rolling Stones album, "Emotional Rescue," on the veranda at the Oloffson.