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|Posted January 27, 2003|
|U.S. team pessimistic after Haiti visit;|
|Lawmakers from state in group urging|
|Aristide toward reform|
|By MARIKA LYNCH, Miami Herald Writer|
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- A bipartisan congressional delegation -- including two Florida lawmakers -- raised serious concerns with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sunday about Haiti's future. They left the country with little hope that the leader will make reforms (photos).
''I want to be cautiously optimistic, but underlying that is a pessimism -- I'm not getting my hopes up,'' said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. He made the three-day trip with fellow Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek, of Miami, and Republican Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Mike DeWine of Ohio.
At an hourlong breakfast at Aristide's private home, the lawmakers asked the Haitian president to crack down on the drug trade and remove police officers known to be involved in it.
The delegation also told Aristide it was unacceptable that leaders of political gangs, who have incited violent street protests, are received in the National Palace. They also urged Aristide to reach out to opposition leaders to solve the nation's nearly 3-year-old political stalemate and call legislative elections.
The conversation was frank, lawmakers said, and Aristide pledged to make reforms. But, Durbin said, the Haitian president needs to take more responsibility.
''He puts all the blame on the opposition and on the United States,'' Durbin said. Until the president takes action on key problems, ``it will be a very difficult situation.''
After a two-day visit during which they visited the seaside slum of Cité Soleil three times -- a neighborhood so dangerous that U.S. Embassy workers are barred from entering -- the congressmen also agreed that the United States needs to send more money to nonprofit groups in Haiti to relieve poverty.
The aid budget five years ago was more than $100 million. Last year it was $57 million.
Aristide is facing his most serious political crisis since he was ousted from office by a coup d'état in 1991. The economy is sliding, and street protests and strikes have become regular events, which observers say is a sign the president is losing support even among the poor, his core backers.
Aristide has pledged to call new legislative elections to resolve the impasse, but says he's been stalled because opposition leaders refuse to participate -- a strategy he says is meant to prolong the crisis and weaken his ability to govern.
The president also blames most of his problems on the lack of international aid to his government. After the troubled legislative elections, the international community cut off aid -- including freezing more than $145 million in loans for roads and health projects.
After meeting with the lawmakers, Aristide said he was working to reach out to the opposition and to make reforms such as disarming the violent political gangs, promises he made to the Organization of American States last summer. On Sunday he urged patience.
''It was only in 1990 that the first democratic elections took place in Haiti,'' Aristide said. ``We are in the process of learning democracy in Haiti.''
The two Florida lawmakers on the trip originally made the voyage because they said they wanted to highlight the Bush administration's controversial policy of detaining Haitians who illegally reach the United States while applying for asylum.
Nelson and Meek want to change the policy. But while in Haiti, the two lawmakers focused on one of the root causes of emigration: poverty.
During the visit, they visited a factory to promote a U.S. trade bill that would revive the country's manufacturing industry and provide jobs.
Sen. DeWine took the lawmakers to a free medical clinic in Cité Soleil and a village in Haiti's central plateau that offers schooling to hundreds of families.
Meek on Sunday stood in the home of Janine Fils-Aime, a widow, who lives in a shack. At night, she stacks up concrete cinder blocks to make a bed. Throughout the weekend, Meek recounted what he saw in phone calls back to Miami, and stunned his wife into silence.
''It's just saddening my heart. It can't help but move you emotionally,'' Meek said. He wants to set up a congressional bipartisan study group to seek ways to alleviate poverty in the nation of eight million.
This news article first appeared in The Miami Herald of January 27, 2003.
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