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OUT FRONT: In Haiti’s Golden Ghetto, Not Much Glitters

September 22, 1994

PETIONVILLE, Haiti (AP) _ At Little Europe, a convenience store stocked with Limoges china and French fragrances in this golden ghetto above Port-au-Prince, time stands still. The shop has no batteries for the expensive Rolexes in the display case.

At the elegant Cascade Restaurant, customers are so few that diners can arrive without reservations and have their choice of table. Sancerre blanc is still on the wine list but not in the cellars.

From up here among the scarlet flame trees and clinking ice cubes, distance seems to dull the turmoil below, of teeming poverty, police beatings and the sudden arrival of American military might.

Behind high walls and guarded gates, Haiti’s superrich families still live the old life. Members in good standing of the Petionville circle refer to themselves with a worn sobriquet bestowed by foreign reporters: MREs, for ″morally repugnant elite.″

Mostly, however, the well-to-do are not doing too well. Three years of international sanctions, often cited as harming Haiti’s desperately poor people more than they hamper its illegal military government, have definitely cramped their style.

The fortunate no longer spend entire weekends at boozy blowouts at private beach houses or fancy-dress balls. These days, they get home before dark and settle in to watch ″Jeopardy″ or premier movie channels pulled in by rooftop satellites.

And now they must contemplate the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the despised little priest from the slums whose ouster in September 1991 some of them toasted with champagne.

Misery in Haiti, of course, is relative. Down the hill in Cite Soleil, untreated sewage streams past tin shacks so crowded the adults take turns sleeping. Few people work; most spend their time scheming to find food. All the children are malnourished, and many are ill with untreated diseases.

″The embargo has hit hardest among the poor, but it has also ruined much of the bourgeois class,″ asserts Jerry Tardieu, an author and economist who has studied the embargo’s effects.

No one has escaped, he said. His own gravely ill uncle died this summer after the airports were shut down and he couldn’t be flown out for emergency treatment.

More widely, the airline sanctions have forced Haiti’s weathy to give up their 90-minute trips to shop in Miami and instead endure an all-day overland ride to the international airports in the Dominican Republic, provided papers can be arranged.

Haiti’s rich have traditionally survived, and sometimes grown richer, largely through their ability to adapt to changing politics and economics, to invaders as well as investors.

Wednesday night, Fritz Mevs, head of the Haitian American Sugar Co. and one of the military leadership’s top business associates, was on hand to cheer U.S. soldiers as they captured the Haitian army’s only munitions depot.

Tardieu, the economist, estimated that 2 percent of Haitians control almost half the nation’s meager wealth. But now, with the sanctions, the political uncertainties of recent months and the arrival of U.S. military forces, some legitimate businesses have collapsed and new contraband enterprises are thriving.

Some Haitians have been enriched: When the Honda dealer recently offered 24 new cars that slipped through the embargo, at prices from $19,000 to $36,000, they were snapped up in a week.

Others have been left bereft: Architects and artists are among the privileged Haitians now offering their services as translators to news organizations.

Most of the wealthy share Tardieu’s assessment of their distress but none interviewed was willing to be identified by name, so as to offend neither the still powerful military leaders nor the returning Aristide.

″Let’s just say that something might be misconstrued,″ allowed a board member of the posh Petionville Club, a nest of well-off Haitians and foreigners founded in 1926 during the first American occupation.

One recent sunny day, at lunchtime, the club’s pool was deserted but for a man of leisure who collects income from property in the United States. Only a few people were in the restaurant, or anywhere else.

A notice at the club apologizes that all services would cease daily at 7 p.m. until ″the crisis″ passed, adding: ″We hope this will be a short time.″ It’s dated October 1993.

″People don’t go out much at night anymore, because of finances or insecurity,″ the officer said. ″No point in inviting trouble. And now, with satellite, there is so much to watch on television.″

Some families still entertain, but the lavish, drink-all-night bashes of the 1980s are a fading memory. In a town that loved its many discos, just one survives, ″Faces″ in the El Rancho Hotel, and only on Friday nights.

Luxury goods still pack the shelves in Petionville’s fancy boutiques, partly because owners find ways around the embargo. Often, goods are plentiful because customers are scarce.

At La Promenade, a leafy mini-mall by Place St. Pierre, the shop Caprice stocks a full range of English teas and biscuits. It’s considered bad form to check the date on the cracker packages.

One establishment stays open - and loses money - only to keep its staff employed and primed for better times.

Another business is doing well with an aerobics gym for young professionals who want to sweat out stress and frustration.

″It’s funny to see these wealthy Haitians exercising like crazy,″ said a woman in one aerobics class, who insisted on anonymity. ″They walk. They had to learn how to do it. It is good for the spirit.″

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