Image: Rene Preval
Lynne Sladky  /  AP
Haiti's President Rene Preval, right, is greeted as he arrives at the judicial police headquarters in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.
updated 1/21/2010 4:28:42 AM ET 2010-01-21T09:28:42

The Cabinet holds meetings outdoors on an uncovered concrete slab under the broiling tropical sun. The communications office is a folding table beneath a tree, and the president greets dignitaries inside a drab, one-story building.

The earthquake that destroyed the Haitian capital's most prominent institutions, including the now-crumpled presidential palace, has left the top layer of government for a country of 9 million people operating in a tiny police station.

Struggling with a massive humanitarian crisis, officials say they barely notice the humble surroundings.

"I am serving the nation. I don't have any time to make any comment about the location of the president's office," said Yves Mazile, chief of protocol, who was ushering foreign delegations in to see President Rene Preval.

A Haitian flag flies at half-staff inside the driveway of the judicial police headquarters, one of the many reminders of the estimated 200,000 people killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Keeping up appearances
A Foreign Ministry worker with a string of pearls around her neck smiles for visitors, keeping up appearances despite the loose ceiling panels and hanging wires in the concrete police building. The staff was busy Wednesday with visits from Dominican, Korean and Israeli delegations, all of them coordinating aid.

The Haitian Cabinet met outside Wednesday morning to discuss aid because there was no room inside the cramped building. After Preval arrived, his visitors passed through the lobby of flaking blue paint for private meetings.

In a capital that is burying tens of thousands of people in mass graves, officials say they are grateful the Cabinet still is intact.

"We are alive but each of us, like people across the country, have people in our lives who died," said Communications and Culture Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn-Lassegue, who was attending to a couple of dozen local and international reporters in one corner of the driveway.

The police station was chosen because of its proximity to Port-au-Prince's international airport, the entry point for a stream of aid the hemisphere's poorest country is on counting to endure the quake's effects.

U.S. stresses Haitian sovereignty
The U.S. government takes pains to stress that Haitians are still running the country despite the arrival of some 10,000 American troops. With local police stretched to their limit even before the quake, U.S. soldiers have become a common sight on the streets of Port-au-Prince, even guarding the entrance to the General Hospital.

But the foreigners still call on the government at the police station, if only briefly. The dignitaries stopping by Wednesday included U.S. Ambassador Ken Merten and Edmond Mulet, the acting U.N. envoy to Haiti.

Government officials say only their performance matters — not their office location — but at least some Haitians are uncomfortable seeing their leader hidden away.

Preval is being increasingly criticized for not taking a more prominent role. The president has yet to address the nation or publicly tour disaster areas to comfort his people, angering many Haitians.

"The president is not supposed to take refuge in a police station," said Henri Mentor, 35, who was waiting outside in hopes of finding work.

All involved hope the police station is only a temporary base. Jocelyn-Lassegue said the government already is looking for new offices and, eventually, a move into a new national palace.

"It will be rebuilt, but we don't know when," she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Haiti's hobbled government gives little guidance

  1. Closed captioning of: Haiti's hobbled government gives little guidance

    >>> now, as promised, to haiti . eight days since the quake they were jolted awake today by a strong aftershock, the worse yet. it was a 5.9. the hard slog of saving lives, treating the wounded goes on. again tonight my colleague lester holt leads the team on the ground in port-au-prince, haiti , lester, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening to you. 5.9 aftershock this morning. after looking at scenes like this, you can believe all of us ran for safety this morning. i suspect a lot more people will continue to sleep in the streets of port-au-prince for a little while longer, but nothing will stop the residents or the rescuers here from doing what has to be done. hours after this morning's aftershock, the work of trying to find the living among the rubble resumed.

    >> which house this one here?

    >> reporter: as did the task of recovering the dead. neighbors pulled the body of esther, a 12-year-old girl. her mother paid her $300 to recover her.

    >> i'll take her to my home country and bury her.

    >> reporter: today more help for haiti 's injured. the " usns comfort " arrived.

    >> what we are going to do is try to take patients that are really more complicated than they are able to manage.

    >> reporter: a growing military presence from the u.s. and other nations is helping to deliver more food. especially outside port-au-prince, where aid has been slow to reach.

    >> i have no food. no water, nothing.

    >> reporter: the general in charge of american efforts here admitted the overall relief operation has not kept up with demand.

    >> i see their frustration every day. i feel their frus ration. are we doing enough? absolutely not.

    >> reporter: despite the growing build up here by the united nations and united states , both say they take their marching orders ultimately from the haitian government. this is haiti 's seat of power now, a small police station near the airport where everyone comes waiting for answers. on the streets, scattered clashes occurred again between police and people taking what they need. most of the city, however, is peaceful. criticism of president rene prevalley response to the crisis is growing.

    >> he doesn't even say anything, never mind visiting the people.

    >> reporter: local government leaders are also searching for guidance. who is in charge here?

    >> this would be the president.

    >> reporter: are they?

    >> i don't know.

    >> reporter: a haitian government spokesman says they are making progress in assigning regional ministers to oversee relief.

    >> this mean that they are still believing they are the government. still believing you should do more and i believe it's good for democracy, a good sign for haiti .

    >> reporter: as recovery extends funny a second week, everyone knows the short-term hope provided by joyous moments like this one, a young boy pulled alive from the rubble, will soon wane, replaced by the stoic acceptance of a difficult new normal. we can tell you the first time the u.s. military buildup here could have a direct impact on the wars overseas. a marine expeditionary group that was on its way over to the middle east has been diverted to haiti . those 2,000 plus marines could be offshore late tonight or early tomorrow morning .

    >> that has to help, lester. and the air force continues to send everything they've got. lester holt on the ground in port-au-prince. as we saw

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