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|Posted May 5, 2005|
Deepening Poverty Breeds Desperation in Haiti
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
|A girl runs past a dumpster overflowing with burning trash. Since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two months ago, Haiti has sunk even deeper into poverty. More Image Results|
By LYDIA POLGREEN
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 4 - The pile of garbage behind the spot where Marie Joseph sells tins of tomato paste started out small, the usual primordial goo that coats this grimy capital's streets, binding a putrid mélange. But in the two months since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected leader, was forced from power by an armed rebellion, the pile has swelled like a rapacious tumor.
"I have never seen anything like this," Ms. Joseph said last week, squatting near the 12-foot-high pile, wrinkling her nose at the stench beneath a pair of gold-rimmed bifocals. "How can we live like this?"
Difficult as it may be to believe, people here say, life in the poorest nation in the hemisphere has gotten worse in the past two months.
Mounds of garbage choke the streets. Electricity in the capital has been scarce for weeks. The police force has fallen deeper into disarray, and crime has spiked, including a rash of kidnappings aimed at wealthy businesspeople. The price of rice, the Haitian staple, has doubled in some parts of the country.
A senior Western diplomat said the biggest concern was that the interim government, led by Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, will face mass unrest over the deteriorating conditions, which could reignite violent clashes between Aristide supporters and rebels, who still occupy large swaths of the country despite the presence of 3,600 foreign troops.
Other than small, symbolic transfers, supporters of the former president and the rebels have both clung steadfastly to their weapons. If violence flares, the diplomat said, the government might not survive the next two or three months.
"The international community needs to help this government, we need to get monetary support to them yesterday," the diplomat said. If this government does not survive, it is not clear what comes after.''
But international help has been slow to arrive. The United States-led force here is to hand over the job of stabilizing Haiti in June to a United Nations force of about 8,000 troops led by Brazil. The brevity of the United States military commitment and the molasses-slow trickle of aid have led many people here to conclude that this decade's effort to rebuild Haiti will be even less successful than the United States effort in the 1990's.
Skeptical Haitians view the unelected government and its foreign backers with a suspicion as brittle as the clay biscuits they now eat.
"No one has ever done anything for us," said Pierre Charlestin, 24, who lives in a grim shantytown that sprang up a decade ago on the grounds of Fort Dimanche, the Duvalier regime's notorious political prison. "Why should we expect anything different now?"
Officials and supporters of the former president's party, Lavalas, say the new government is persecuting them. The party has delayed appointing a representative to the council that will organize elections next year, a delay that could block a crucial step to restoring democracy in Haiti.
Playing on his name, which means "turtle" in French, Prime Minister Latortue acknowledged late last month at a donors' conference that his government's pace had been slow.
"Some say the turtle goes slowly," Mr. Latortue said. "I need you to help us go surely."
Today he faces an exhausted treasury, a vast corrupt and demoralized state work force, wary international donors and lingering doubts about the manner in which Mr. Aristide left the country.
American officials, who provided the plane that took him into him into exile, say Mr. Aristide left willingly to avoid bloodshed. Mr. Aristide has said his departure was a "modern-day kidnapping."
To many people here, Mr. Aristide remains the only legitimate leader they have. "We believe in democracy, and we have a democratically elected leader," said Alix Jean, a Lavalas partisan, at a recent rally at the church in La Saline, the slum where Mr. Aristide once preached his fiery sermons of liberation. "His name is Jean-Bertrand Aristide."
Flawed legislative elections in 2000 led to the political deadlock that culminated in Mr. Aristide's ouster and the suspension of $500 million in foreign aid. But the flow of cash that was expected once Mr. Aristide left has yet to begin in earnest.
Officials here say they desperately need money. The United Nations issued an emergency appeal in March for $35 million but has collected just $9 million.
The finance minister, Henri Bazin, said he discovered when he took the job last month that the government had less than one month of foreign reserves in the bank and that a $100 million deficit loomed.
"We are faced with an impossible situation," Mr. Bazin said in an interview at his office near the National Palace. "We need $100 million immediately, absolutely right away, to do the bare minimum of what the government should be doing. But we don't know where that money will come from."
Mr. Latortue left Tuesday for Washington, where he is to meet with Bush administration officials and seek aid commitments. Another donor conference in June will start the flow of aid, but diplomats worry the government cannot wait that long.
Officials here have accused Mr. Aristide of looting the public treasury. A Western diplomat who is investigating charges of corruption said the government's finances were in deep disarray.
"The previous government took money from official accounts and used it for whatever purpose suited them," this diplomat said. "They simply wrote checks, and the Central Bank covered them by expanding the money supply."
Mr. Aristide's Miami-based lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said the former president never stole money. "There may have been corruption at some level," Mr. Kurzban said. "But the people at the top making decisions and using money, all of these people were honest."
The national police force was decimated by last month's armed rebellion; rebels set fire to police stations, killed as many as several dozen officers, and looted their cars and equipment. "Our biggest problem right now is security," said Police Chief Léon Charles said in an interview. "But we have no resources."
Of a 6,000-member force, as few as half its officers can be counted on to show up, police officials said. A recent recruiting drive brought thousands of candidates, who rioted as they waited to fill out applications; a student was killed in the stampede.
Privately, ministers of the new government marvel at how Mr. Aristide was able to keep Haiti's government going.
Leslie Voltaire, who was Mr. Aristide's minister for Haitians living abroad, said Mr. Aristide made the country work through sheer force of will. He likened the country now to a heart-transplant patient.
"They have removed the heart, Aristide," Mr. Voltaire said in an interview. "We are now waiting on the operating table for a transplant, and the operation is being done without anesthesia."
Haitians who have suffered through decades of misrule say their patience with the interim government is wearing thin. Derilus Joseph Érine, a 42-year-old mason who lives in Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, warned darkly that dissatisfaction could turn violent quickly.
"The political leaders are trying to get their piece of the cake," Mr. Érine said. "If we don't get a piece of the cake, too, we are going to do whatever we can to make the cake fall so at least we can pick up the crumbs."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of May 5, 2004.
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