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
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
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
An already decrepit infrastructure -- roads, dams, electricity, telephones,
-- further deteriorates because there is no money for maintainence or
Private investment has virtually dried up as a result of insecurity and
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
Commerce and Industry.
``Haiti is not only at a standstill but is slipping backward toward the
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
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
-- 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
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
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
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.
Lack of electricity is forcing many small one-person shops to close because
can't afford generators.
Making a phone call on one of the existing 65,000 lines -- for a country
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
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
whether the killing was for personal or political reasons.
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''
with other countries in the region like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad
``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
they will be the next victim.''
It's increasingly apparent that the crisis is taking its toll, despite
economic figures like the 3 percent growth rate and single-digit inflation recorded
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.
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
tired, they can't protest any more.''
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald