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Haiti: How nation-building has gone awry

More than seven years after a U.S. invasion, Haiti struggles with extreme poverty and is close to political ruin.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 14, 2002


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- At the former U.S. military camp on the outskirts of Haiti's capital, a large sign is a reminder of the 21,000 troops who invaded the country in September 1994.

Operation Restore Democracy was wrapped up in early 1996. The American troops are long gone. So too is a small force of United Nations peacekeepers.

But as the international community undertakes its new mission in faroff Afghanistan, the legacy of foreign intervention in Haiti is unraveling and the country is sliding toward political collapse.

Fearing that Afghanistan might rapidly return to being a haven for terrorists, the United States and its allies have pledged not to abandon the country after the military mission is over.

Critics of the international community's role in Haiti ask why the same commitment was not made here.

"The situation called for a long-term program of nation-building to create or restore all of the institutions of government in tandem," said Haiti expert James Morrell, research director at the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

In 1994 things went well at first. Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was restored to power amid tumultuous popular acclaim. The Haitian military was quickly disbanded and its most corrupt officers banished into exile.

But longer-term goals of political stability and reduction of poverty have proved short-lived.

Instead, Haiti is worse off than ever. According to a recent World Bank report Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 70 percent of its 7.8-million population living in dire poverty. Half of adults are illiterate, and less than one-quarter of rural children attend primary school.

Expectations that Aristide would use his popular following to reunite the country quickly evaporated after 1994.

The return of political infighting has paralyzed the government. Since 1997, foreign donors have held back $500-million in promised loans and aid after a series of political crises. Parliament has not approved a budget in six years.

Some U.S. and Haitian analysts blame the international community for unfairly imposing a foreign blueprint on the country after 1994, failing to take into account Haitian realities. "They came with their own plan to solve their own interests," said Camille Chalmers, director of the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, known as PAPDA.

For example, the demand that Haiti open up its protectionist economy and reduce tariffs resulted in a flood of cheap imported foodstuffs. Unable to compete, local agricultural production has collapsed, fueling greater unemployment in an impoverished countryside. Corn production in the south of Haiti has fallen by 60 percent, PAPDA says.

The World Bank admits mistakes were made. A December 2001 report pointed out that international aid failed to pay sufficient attention to nation-building projects including strengthening weak public institutions.

Even so, many Haitians and foreign analysts say Aristide bears much of the blame.

Back in power after five years, Aristide's second presidency is under fire for corruption, including allegations of ties to drug money. The former priest once regarded as a savior by Haiti's poor is fast losing popularity. For the first time, graffiti has appeared on the streets of the capital: "Down with Aristide."

Former allies have abandoned his political party, Lavalas Family, accusing it of betraying its democratic roots and changing into a mafia-style family business. Scandals abound as rival factions of the Lavalas Family jockey for positions of influence. While the country descends deeper into poverty, government officials drive around in shiny new deluxe sport utility vehicles. Last year the government spent an estimated $7-million on four mansions for top officials, including one for Prime Minister Jean-Marie Cherestal, a boyhood friend of the president.

The prime minister's $1.3-million home is perched atop a hill with a magnificent view of the slums below.

"We voted for these people because we thought there would be change," said Alfonso Desi, a 38-year-old unemployed mason standing in the street outside. "From the minute they go into government they become bourgeois."

Aristide's aloof political style and back-room machinations have earned him unsavory comparisons to Haiti's infamous former dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Repression has returned in the guise of militant pro-Aristide street thugs -- known as the "chimere." After a hapless Dec. 17 coup attempt by unidentified gunmen, the chimere went on a rampage burning down the homes and political offices of opposition leaders. At least 10 people were killed.

Despite pledges to maintain law and order, the government failed to intervene. Worse, Lavalas Family party officials participated in some of the attacks. Government vehicles were used.

"Aristide is worse than Duvalier," said Evans Paul, a former Aristide ally and former mayor of Port-au-Prince. "Duvalier had a certain vision. He was selective in his repression. With Aristide it's anarchy."

In recent weeks a series of attacks by government supporters and officials have occurred across the country. On Nov. 30, Lavalas Family officials in the port town of St. Marc opened fire on a group of 100 antigovernment demonstrators. Two people were killed and 10 wounded. Local police came under fire when they intervened. None of the town officials has been arrested.

On Dec. 3 a radio director was stoned and hacked to death by government supporters in the town of Petit-Goave after he broadcast an interview with local opposition leaders. Although authorities identified the alleged assassins, police have refused to execute arrest warrants. Rioting broke out when police tried to stop 4,000 mourners marching to the local cemetery.

In the most recent incident, a Family Lavalas member of parliament, Jocelyn Saint-Louis, was accused last week of killing the mayor of northern town, shooting him 17 times. Saint-Louis has denied direct involvement, saying the bullets were fired by a member of his security detail after the mayor attacked them. A parliamentary commission is investigating.

"This is a government that allows itself to do anything it wants, to kill, to burn and to put itself beyond the law," said Jean-Claude Bajeux, a veteran human rights advocate and former minister of culture in Aristide's first administration.

Aristide has condemned the violence but seems unable or unwilling to stop it. International observers are increasingly perturbed by his inaction.

U.S. and Latin American diplomats are to meet at the Organization of American States in Washington this week to discuss Haiti. The OAS is considering invoking a provision in its charter to force the government to allow international mediators to intervene.

Critics of the international response to the deepening crisis in Haiti say much more than that is required.

"Haiti needs a long-term program of nation-building," Morrell said. "You can't just parachute the president back in like we did in 1994. Once you intervene you have to stay and finish the job."

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