Aristide’s Return: Restored Democracy Doesn’t Put Food on Table
EDITOR’S NOTE _ It’s been nearly five months since U.S. troops landed and turned back the clock in Haiti, negotiating the departure of brutal military leaders and bringing back the democratically elected president. Much has changed since then, but The Associated Press finds much has not.
By LISA M. HAMM
Associated Press Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Shots no longer pierce the night in the slums, where families used to pray the body they’d find in the street the next morning wouldn’t be one of their loved ones.
Now that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is back, terror at the hands of the brutal military that ruled Haiti for three years is over. But newfound freedom has provided little relief from devastating poverty, worsened by a series of trade embargoes.
``Before, we couldn’t sleep at night,″ said 25-year-old Annette Felix, who sells secondhand clothing in Bel Air, a poor neighborhood once targeted for army terrorism because its residents supported Aristide. ``Now we can sleep peacefully; we don’t have to worry.″
But Roseanne Celie, 29, who sat on the ground nearby repairing a pair of donated jeans, chimed in: ``But life is too expensive now. I can’t live now!″
Sanctions were lifted after the return of Aristide on Oct. 15, but life has yet to improve in many ways. Three-quarters of the people living in this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere have little or no work.
Aristide has made several speeches pledging government help. In the southwestern port of Jeremie in January, he promised victims of military repression money to sue their former tormentors.
In the slum Cite Soleil he promised to build 200 new houses on the site where a huge fire set by army-supported paramilitary groups in December 1993 left about 5,000 people homeless and dozens dead.
But relieving poverty is largely out of Aristide’s hands. The devastated economy cannot be revived without private investment, and investors first want evidence of political stability. That is something Haiti has never had in nearly two centuries of repression and dictatorships.
A trend of vicious crime has replaced army terrorism, especially in middle-class neighborhoods and businesses. For example, the robbery-murder of businessman Ney Bellancourt on Jan. 26 sent shock waves through his suburban community of Petionville. Bellancourt’s ears, nose and two of his fingers were cut off, one eye was gouged out and his body was sliced by machetes.
Murders are reported almost daily, as are burglaries, extortion and robberies at makeshift roadblocks.
Many former officers and supporters of the dismantled army still have weapons, despite an effort by U.S. soldiers to round them up.
There is no one to call for help or justice. An academy set up by the U.S. Justice Department to train the new police force opened Jan. 31 but will not graduate its first class for four months.
In the meantime, former Haitian soldiers who have undergone a crash course on police work patrol some areas with international police monitors.
In the remote countryside, army-affiliated sheriffs have been officially stripped of their power. But in regions where the multinational peacekeeping force has not gone, many still abuse the people.
Throughout Haiti, families are coming to blows over ownership of the land on which they live. Such feuds destabilize Haiti anytime there is a government transition because de facto occupation for a generation gives title to the land.
Aristide’s government recently announced it was confiscating all lands with disputed titles, but that has not stopped the fighting.
Even the president is party to a land dispute in Port-au-Prince, where squatters have moved onto Fort Dimanche, the dreaded prison where thousands died during the 29-year Duvalier dynasty. Aristide wants to convert the fort into a museum memorializing victims of repression, but the squatters have torn down buildings and used the stones to build homes.
There is, however, hope for improvement to Haiti’s crippled infrastructure:
_The multinational force has repaired turbines of the hydroelectric dam, so that once the rainy season refills the reservoir this spring, the capital’s power needs should be met after years of erratic service. Electric company officials also plan to enlarge plant capacity.
_Gasoline-run water purification pumps are being repaired and fueled, and paramilitary groups no longer control water distribution centers in poor neighborhoods.
_Some notoriously potholed roads are being repaired, although others are becoming worse under the weight of increased traffic.
Still, Haiti is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign assistance, with almost half the government’s projected budget for 1994-95 coming from U.S. aid alone.
It will take sustained development and long-term investment to improve this patient people’s lot from misery to what Aristide has called ``poverty with dignity.″