DUVIVIER, Haiti (AP) -- When the sugar mill that provided their
livelihoods shut down, residents of this farming village on the outskirts of
Haiti's capital burned the sugar stumps and began growing vegetables for
Convinced they could multiply production if they didn't have to haul buckets
of water from the nearby river, they appealed to the government for a water
pump -- a leap of faith in a country whose leaders have mostly been corrupt
"The government would do nothing for us," said Wilfried Mervil, chief of
village's cooperative project.
To make things worse, bureaucrats tried to expropriate the land to make
way for a housing project to take in people from a swampy shantytown now
overcrowded with a quarter million residents. Protests by the farmers finally
persuaded the government to drop that plan.
Enter a foundation run by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom
many Haitians see as the only political figure who can get anything done in a
land where poverty and official inertia seem to be crushing the national spirit.
Two years, six pumps
At the Aristide Foundation, the Committee to Uplift Duvivier found
sympathetic ears, an interest-free loan for $1,000 and people with the
influence to persuade the Ministry of Agriculture to rent them a pump.
Two years later, the villagers have six small pumps feeding water to 740
acres of plantain, bananas, callaloo leaves and okra, up from 50 acres. In
February, Duvivier's residents were even able to move a pump to the village
of Sibert to help their neighbors.
Since the Aristide Foundation was founded in 1996, Aristide's squabbling
rivals have watched in frustration as it has helped strengthen a popularity that
few doubt will help sweep him back to power in the 2000 presidential
The foundation's credit bank last year gave a total of $625,000 in loans
repayable in different ways to its 12,000 members, each of whom paid 25
gourdes ($1.50) to join.
Critics claim political ambitions
Part of the foundation's broader appeal is its effort to persuade its
beneficiaries to sell their goods at low prices -- critical in a society where a
proliferation of middlemen has made staples expensive.
At Christmas, the foundation sold piglets at half price. Parents and students
in search of textbooks come to buy at discounted rates. The foundation even
provides foreign-language classes at a third of the tuition of private schools.
Aristide and the foundation do not lack for critics. His opponents contend
the foundation is really just a means to promote Aristide's political ambitions.
And they try to raise suspicions about its financing.
The foundation won't release details on its income, saying only that its
comes from anonymous donors and the proceeds from Aristide's lecture
tours and book sales.
Preval and paralysis
The United States was wary when Aristide, a left-leaning former Roman
Catholic priest, won Haiti's first democratic election in 1990. But he was a
dramatic improvement over previous Haitian rulers, and after he was
overthrown by a murderous military regime, U.S. troops invaded in 1994 to
Constrained by a constitution that banned consecutive terms, Aristide
handed power to President Rene Preval in 1995. Aristide's critics charge
that since then he has not stopped scheming to return to power.
Haiti's paralysis has certainly fed a national yearning for a savior. Preval
his combative parliament could not agree on a prime minister for 19 months,
leaving the country without a budget and causing world donors to withhold
hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. In January, Preval declared he would
no longer recognize parliament, and fears of violence have mounted.
Some Aristide critics go so far as to charge he is conspiring with Preval
prevent real progress in order to better his chances to be seen as a potential
savior by the masses. The foundation, they say, is just more manipulation
that feeds a debilitating traditional dependency on patronage from
"The foundation is a propaganda machine for Aristide's party ... a
recruitment center for street activists," said Mischa Gaillard of the socialist
National Congress of Democratic Movements.
Aristide has refused to respond directly. But the foundation's defenders
the attacks are sour grapes from politicians who rarely raise a helping hand
"Not only do we operate in the social domain, but equally in the economic
domain -- and if that involves politics, we do politics, but constructive
politics," said the foundation's director, Hilaire Toussaint.
"Of course, this is the kind of thing the government should be doing. But
is incapable, why shouldn't someone else help?"
At the foundation, Aristide occasionally preaches in a cathedral-like hall
can hold 1,000 people. Portraits of the diminutive, bespectacled priest hang
in most rooms.
He lectures on the virtues of a populist democracy and the need to expand
the kind of grass-roots organizations that propelled him to the presidency.
"The foundation to some extent is probably more effective than the
government, and consequently Aristide is being perceived as the person who
gets things done whether he's in power or out," said professor Percy
Hintzen, a political sociologist and chairman of black studies at the University
of California at Berkeley.
The political implications of such patronage are clear.
"I'm not a fan of Aristide's, but if I use his services, then I have to
him," said a policeman who bought cheap schoolbooks from the foundation.
"That's how it works in Haiti."
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.