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One year later: more poverty, less hope threaten Haiti’s democracy

February 2, 1997

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ There would be no new jobs, no new schools or hospitals. That was the bleak campaign message that Rene Preval delivered before he became president of Haiti.

His first year in office ends this week on an even gloomier note: The government admits its failure to meet the urgent needs of the people, the prime minister is under siege to resign and protesters threaten a general strike.

Beleaguered, Preval appears to have turned to traditional political gestures _ promising land for the poor and new buildings that he previously said the country could not afford.

To mark the anniversary of his inauguration Feb. 7, he will parcel out 2,500 acres of state land in 1.2-acre plots to landless peasants _ a majority of Haiti’s 7.2 million people.

Grass-roots groups say Preval is grandstanding _ even as the government prepares to lower tariff barriers, which would force Haitian farmers into competition against cheaper imports.

Critics say other measures such as increased sales taxes, spending cuts and privatizing state enterprises make no sense in a country where more than half the work force is jobless or gets only a few days’ work a month.

Preval has promised Haiti will turn around: Foreign aid soon will turn the Caribbean country into ``a vast construction site,″ he said. But there are many doubters.

Haiti received $530 million in aid between October 1994 and December 1995 _ the period between the ouster of Haiti’s three-year military regime by U.S. troops and the election of Preval. Since then, aid has slowed to a trickle.

A lack of funds has stalled most large labor projects since October. And even though more than $300 million in infrastructure aid is in the pipeline, Haiti is not prepared to turn on the tap.

An inefficient, poorly trained and often corrupt bureaucracy is unable to process the aid money and make disbursements. Also, legislation tied to some aid has failed to get through Parliament.

``Our working hypothesis was that investment would come right away. In fact, disbursement has been delayed,″ Finance Minister Fred Joseph said.

World Bank representative Axel Peuker is leading 18 officers from international lending institutions evaluating Haiti.

``In view of the overwhelming needs, everything must be done to speed up development investment,″ Peuker said.

But the finance team arrived on Jan. 13 at an inauspicious moment _ just before a 24-hour anti-government strike that shut down businesses, schools and bus services across the country.

The general strike, the first against a democratic government in Haiti, protested the austerity measures which will sack 7,000 of 43,000 government workers by mid-1998.

``Fear alone couldn’t have made that many people stay home. ... People are dissatisfied,″ Preval admitted.

The 160 grass-roots groups that organized the strike threaten another after Feb. 7.

Further unrest could jeopardize the passage to democracy Haiti has struggled to make since Preval succeeded President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s 193-year history.

The strike leaders last month demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Rosny Smarth, and the House of Deputies is considering a vote of no confidence.

Preval and Smarth cultivated strong opposition in September by pushing through controversial legislation to modernize Haiti’s ruined economy.

International donors, who finance 60 percent of Haiti’s budget, immediately pledged more than $1.1 billion for reconstruction. But lawmakers say the austerity measures required are too high a cost.

Peuker’s delegation leaves Haiti on Tuesday with a negative evaluation, according to a dismayed diplomat who attended their meetings.

Peuker agreed there was cause for concern, ``because economic growth is fragile. But there is always concern when it comes to a young democracy.″

The 4.5 percent growth rate achieved in fiscal 1994-95 dropped to 2.8 percent, hardly greater than the 2 percent population growth. At that rate, it would take a decade to return to the productivity level of 1991.

Meanwhile, almost one in three Haitians survives on handouts _ one hot meal a day from international and private charities.

Without that, and money Haitians abroad send home, there would be famine.

Edy Norbert, 24, gets neither free meals nor remittances and is the only breadwinner supporting his father and eight siblings aged 8 to 26 years. Last week, the lottery office where he sells tickets on commission did little business, so there was no money to buy food. Norbert’s younger brothers and sisters stayed home because they were too weak to go to school.

On Friday, a family friend gave them 50 gourdes, about $3.85 _ enough to buy rice and peas for a sauce, a lunch they washed down with water.

``Food is more expensive, it’s our number one problem. But our style of life is the same,″ Norbert noted philosophically. ``Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don’t. That’s the way it has been for me since I was born.″

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