Heartache in Haiti

Aristide may no longer be president of Haiti, but is his country any better off?

| Tue Apr. 6, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

Jean-Bertrand Aristide may no longer be president of Haiti, but it's an open question whether his country is any better off. The immediate prospects for putting one of the world's poorest countries back together again are hardly assuring given a current situation that features a U.S.-backed interim regime that is already showing signs of corruption; an exiled former president who may be trying for his third comeback; an infrastructure beyond the breaking point after decades of mismanagement and violence; and a distracted Bush Administration that just wishes the Haitian problem would go away.

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U.S.-backed Interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue came out of his Florida exile only to embrace the rebel groups -- drug lords and convicted murderers among them -- responsible for last month's political violence. He praised their efforts, calling them "freedom fighters"-- much to the amazement of human rights activists who have observed how they operate. Neither Latortue nor the U.N.-mandated forces have prevented the rebels from tormenting remaining Aristide supporters and former cabinet members. In an ironic twist, Latortue has blacklisted dozens of Aristide's supporters and forbidden them from leaving the country until they are cleared from any 'ill-doing' under Aristide's rule.

A recent Reuter's report described how an attorney and member of Aristide's Lavalas party was severely beaten and nearly lynched by an angry mob of Aristide opponents while walking home from his office. Cowering inside the local police station, the 33-year-old told a reporter, through tears and blood:

"They hit me just because I support Lavalas! Lavalas is no longer in power, but that's my party. That's democracy."

The Miami Herald reported that even the new chief of police has entered into talks with rebel leaders on how to incorporate their forces into police units despite protests from U.S. and human rights officials:

"French peacekeeping troops observed the closed-door talks between rebel leader Guy Philippe and Renan Etienne, the new police chief for northern Haiti, who said afterward that he was willing to accept some rebels into his force but not without a screening process."

Basic services, like electricity and garbage collection, while always erratic, are virtually nonexistent in Haiti now, and so far the U.N. has raised only a fraction of the estimated $35 million needed to rebuild the country. Interim Prime Minister Latortue is scheduled to meet with foreign donors on April 14 to ask for additional funding. Many interim officials blame the country's decayed state on years of corruption during Aristide's tenure.

The Guardian's Stevenson Jacobs spoke with frustrated new government officials. Cabinet Minister Robert Ulysse said:

"We have all this urgency and no funds to do anything. We're still trying to get the engine started, but we're not moving anywhere.''

And Ann-Marie Issa, one of the seven-member Council of Sages that helped form the new government said:

"The corruption ruined the country. People are poorer, children can't afford to go to school and institutions aren't functioning. We can't afford to have another government like that.''

And Aristide? On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Aristide had filed suit against unnamed French and American officials, accusing them of "death threats, kidnapping and sequestration." (Both countries deny his allegations.) Aristide's lawyers confirmed that a similar suit will soon be filed in the U.S. Aristide claims he is still the democratically elected president of Haiti, and that he was removed from power illegally.

He's not the only one crying foul. After a two-day summit last weekend, leaders from Caribbean Community countries (CARICOM), a key player in Haitian stabilization, "postponed" its recognition of the interim government, calling for a U.N.-led investigation into Aristide's ouster. Leading the charge are Jamaica and Venezuela who have both granted Aristide asylum and support.

The BBC was quick to point out the obvious link between Chavez and Aristide:

"Mr. Chavez, who is himself accusing the US of fomenting the opposition to his rule in Venezuela, said he supported Mr. Aristide's claim to be the rightful leader of Haiti and would refuse to recognise the government of new Prime Minister Gerard Latortue."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered this statement:

"My government does not recognize the one (government) placed by the United Stated in Haiti and we call on the other countries of the continent, as the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) has already done, to pronounce this."

While Aristide ponders a comeback, the U.N. has called for more support from the international community. U.N. special envoy Reginald Dumas told the U.N. Security Council after returning from a 10-day visit to Haiti that it will take at least twenty years to put things right again. Dumas told the council:

"We cannot continue with the start-stop cycle that has characterized relations between the international community and Haiti. You go in, you spend a couple of years, you leave, the Haitians are not necessarily involved and the whole thing collapses. This has to stop."

This is not good news for the Bush administration. Despite President Bush's grudging offer to supply 1,900 Marines to the interim multi-national force mandated by the U.N., Haiti can expect no additional funding or major military support from the U.S.

The Washington Post characterizes the Bush administration's response to the U.N.'s proposal as "another dodge":

"Today the most senior U.S. official to visit Haiti since before Mr. Aristide's departure is to arrive in Port-au-Prince -- a deputy assistant secretary of state. His boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, recently told a congressional committee that the administration will not ask for any supplemental appropriations for Haiti this year. The current budget is $44 million -- about 2 percent of what the United States is spending on reconstruction in Afghanistan."

In a seeming effort to quell criticism that the Bush administration is "ignoring" the situation in Haiti, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a brief, one-day visit to Haiti on Monday -- the first such visit from a top American official since Aristide was "escorted" out of the country by U.S. troops six weeks ago, and the first secretary of state to travel there since Madeline Albright did in 1998. According to a statement made by the U.S. State Department on Friday, the purpose of Powell's visit on Monday was to:

"... observe firsthand United States and international efforts to bring stability to the country and address the humanitarian needs of the Haitian people."

Powell got his answer. Just hours before Powell arrived, two employees of a frozen food company were robbed and then shot in a Port-au-Prince suburb -- two hours passed before the police responded.

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