The Miami Herald
March 13, 1999
Haitians feel pushed `toward the abyss'

             By DON BOHNING
             Herald Staff Writer

             PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The tragedy involving a still-undetermined number of
             Haitians who drowned in a clandestine effort to reach Florida last weekend
             reflects a growing national crisis that promises to provoke many more dangerous
             voyages across the Caribbean by desperate refugees.

             More than four years after a U.S.-led force ousted a military dictatorship and
             returned democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office, the
             country is sinking deeper into chaos and despair. While Haitian politicians bicker
             over power, living standards deteriorate and democratic promises go unfulfilled.

               An estimated $200 million in foreign aid has been lost or delayed, either because
             Parliament did not approve the terms or there was no prime minister to sign loan

               Privatization of several state-owned enterprises has been held up for the same

               An already decrepit infrastructure -- roads, dams, electricity, telephones, ports
             -- further deteriorates because there is no money for maintainence or

               Private investment has virtually dried up as a result of insecurity and political

               Contraband and corruption, always a problem, have reached new levels
             because of the lack of authority of the state, according to a number of sources.

             ``The country is dying,'' says Olivier Nadal, president of Haiti's Chamber of
             Commerce and Industry.

             ``Haiti is not only at a standstill but is slipping backward toward the abyss,''
             another private sector leader says.

             ``We are totally demoralized,'' a businesswoman says.

             ``The political crisis is a smoke screen for a greater crisis of environment,
             population and investment,'' said Julian Harston, who heads the U.N.'s civilian
             police mission as special representative in Haiti for Secretary General Kofi Annan.
             ``They have wasted far too much time with a smoke screen and not with reality.''

             Word that President Rene Preval and a half-dozen opposition parties reached an
             agreement aimed at resolving the political crisis brought a rare glimmer of hope to
             a country that has seen little since democracy was ostensibly restored by the
             September 1994 intervention.

             But for many, the words of Haiti's politicians ring hollow, and they certainly
             wouldn't put money on any agreement being implemented.

             ``Politicians don't care about the country,'' Nadal says. ``They have two objectives
             -- to stay in power as long as they can and to make money.''

             Honesty pays price

             Nadal voices publicly what many say privately, from Petionville's elite to the slum
             dwellers of Cite Soleil. For doing so, Nadal says his life has been threatened and
             his dog poisoned.

             ``Life is not good at all for me,'' says Ismane Pierre, 50, a part-time cleaning
             woman who lives in Cite Soleil and is the sole support for her five children and one

             ``It's the high cost of living that is crushing people,'' Pierre says. ``My house has
             deteriorated, and materials are too expensive, and I can't have it repaired.''

             As for the country's leaders, she added, ``They care only for power, for politics.
             In the meantime, people kill people every day.''

             One sign of frustration: Teachers have been on strike since early January,
             protesting the government's failure to provide promised pay increases. More
             recently, students have staged a series of violent protests, disrupting traffic and
             breaking car windows, in an effort to get back to class.

             The capital's electricity supply, problematic in the best of times, is even more so
             now. The two transformers at the Peligre dam northeast of the capital, both 30
             years old, have blown. It's expected to take at least a month to get spare parts
             from Italy.

             The dam generates 50 percent of power consumption in the capital, where
             demand is not met under the best of conditions. The result is that some areas of
             Port-au-Prince are without electricity 24 hours a day.

             Shopkeepers stymied

             Lack of electricity is forcing many small one-person shops to close because they
             can't afford generators.

             Making a phone call on one of the existing 65,000 lines -- for a country with eight
             million people -- can be a challenge, increased by the fact that all telephone
             numbers added a seventh digit March 1. By one survey, only 17 percent of calls
             made it through the first time they were tried.

             Then there are the constant traffic jams, which make driving in South Florida a
             relative breeze.

             According to recent travelers, the national highway from St. Marc to Gonaives,
             through the country's rice-growing areas, is essentially nonexistent. The same
             sources say much of the rice-growing land along the highway lies fallow, with
             peasants apparently unable to afford to plant.

             To make matters worse, Haiti is undergoing a real or perceived crime wave,
             depending on the source of the information. Local radio reported six people died
             by the gun during the last weekend of February in the Port-au-Prince area.

             On the following Monday, a Haitian senator was assassinated. It remains unclear
             whether the killing was for personal or political reasons.

             `Insecurity psychosis'

             Still, Pierre Denize, director-general of the Haitian National Police, says he does
             not think ``there is a big crime wave right now. Political instability favors what we
             call here insecurity psychosis, which is what it is.''

             ``It's not a matter of opinion,'' Denize says. ``It's a matter of numbers'' compared
             with other countries in the region like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad
             and Guatemala.

             ``This is not to imply there is nothing going on here, and whatever it is that's going
             on certainly preoccupies us,'' Denize adds. But he suggests its impact derives from
             the country's political instability and not an upsurge in crime.

             ``People are worried that in the perceived absence of the authority of the state,
             they will be the next victim.''

             It's increasingly apparent that the crisis is taking its toll, despite relatively positive
             economic figures like the 3 percent growth rate and single-digit inflation recorded
             in 1998.

             Nadal, of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, notes that 80 percent of
             commerce in Haiti is informal, based largely on contraband, which undercuts
             legitimate national industry because it ``pays no taxes and doesn't worry about the

             ``Local industry is going bankrupt because of the contraband,'' he says. ``If the
             situation lasts too long, we will have to close down or enter the informal sector.
             The government is not addressing the problems of the private sector. They don't

             ``We are headed for anarchy and chaos,'' Nadal concludes. ``The people are so
             tired, they can't protest any more.''


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