National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Haiti, after Aristide, continues search for answers

Gonaives, Haiti

For Ronel Jean-Louis, the future in Haiti hinges on how much longer he has to eat dirt to survive. Following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in late February, life has grown so difficult for the 11-year old and his friends that they are forced to eat disks of clay mixed with fat and salt and baked in the relentless Caribbean sun.

“It’s not bad, but bread is better,” he says. Another boy quips, “I remember bread. But I also remember chicken, and that’s even better than bread.” They laugh and agree, these uniformly skinny boys dressed in rags.

Their homes along the dirty seacoast are assembled from scrap lumber and sheets of recycled tin hammered flat. Their future, be it dirt or bread, won’t be determined here, however. Instead, they hungrily wait for word from afar, for the fate of the Haitian majority is always decided somewhere else, be it Washington or the landscaped hills above Port-au-Prince where the political elite dine on duck à l’orange and argue about who will run the country below.

It was a coup in slow motion that finally led to Aristide’s departure. Long under pressure from the U.S. government and a U.S.-coddled opposition, Aristide had been bumbling along, caught between his own hubris and the slim hope of Haiti’s desperate poor that he might eventually make good on his promises. Then came a small band of armed thugs, almost like characters from a comic opera were it not for their tainted provenance, whose march on the capital finally convinced the former priest it was time to leave. The Bush administration -- which had trained the rebels -- did nothing to keep the only democratically elected president in Haiti’s history from being forced from office. Instead, it supplied the plane to hustle Aristide off to the Central African Republic in the middle of the night. Aristide eventually migrated back to neighboring Jamaica, where he remained uncharacteristically silent. He moved to South Africa May 30, saying he was writing a book that would lay out his side of the story.

With the president gone, the United States picked a council of “wise ones” that hastily summoned business consultant Gérard Latortue back from exile in Boca Raton, Fla., to head a caretaker government charged with running the country until elections next year. Latortue named an interim cabinet and then, well, not much happened. As is the case elsewhere these days, any dreams that Haitians had of economic improvement following regime change were left deferred. There was no massive foreign aid nor new investment. Nor is there likely to be anytime soon, “unless, by a miracle, somebody discovers oil in Haiti’s tear-soaked plains,” noted Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.

Even peacekeeping in Haiti demands to be done on the cheap. The initial peacekeeping contingent of 3,500 U.S., Canadian, French and Chilean troops had their jobs outsourced in June when the United Nations began to replace them with some 8,000 less expensive peacekeepers and police officers from low-wage nations.

A weak presence

This has never been a country with a strong government presence in the daily life of its citizens. Most education and health care are provided by churches and nongovernmental organizations. Victims of severe May flooding in the south of the country have had to depend almost solely on international and private relief efforts; the cash-strapped government was typically incapable of responding to the tragedy. And Latortue’s administration is unlikely to extend itself soon into vast areas of the country where the so-called “rebels” still exert control. Yet Latortue faces a larger problem than simply buying off the khaki-clad thugs with money or symbolic government posts. The chasm is widening between the poor hinterlands and the hillside villas above Port-au-Prince where bureaucratic elites have long soaked up much of official development and relief aid before it could find its way out to the majority of the population that skirts the edges of survival.

While the rebels broke down the door for the autocrats to take back the country from Aristide’s crippled administration, those who long for more far-reaching democracy are primed to expect more from the chaos, even if it means making common cause with thugs.

“We’re working for a modern state, but democracy isn’t something you buy in the market. You have to construct it,” said Lesly Jalin, a professor of social work in Port-de-Paix, the capital of the isolated Northwest Province. A leader of the de facto local administration, Jalin told NCR he wants the region to declare itself an “autonomous and decentralized province,” and until that happens the rebels won’t turn over their weapons to the United Nations or anyone else. There are only a few national police in Port-de-Paix, and they stay in their barracks unless an official from the capital flies in to show the flag for an hour or two, in which case they file off to the airport to salute as the dust from the official’s arriving helicopter scours their faces and dulls their newly shined shoes.

This is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the widespread misery moved Haitians to elect Aristide to the presidency in 1990. He was soon tossed out by the military, only to return in 1994 under the wing of the Clinton administration and the U.S. Marines. Prohibited from serving consecutive terms, Aristide ceded his post to René Préval in 1996, only to run and win again in a controversial 2000 election. The Bush administration struck back by blocking hundreds of millions in international aid and, according to several reports, funding -- through the International Republican Institute -- the training of some 600 Haitian rebels by U.S. special forces troops in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Under pressure, Aristide turned even more for help from Cuba and Venezuela, both pariah states to those implementing Bush’s Latin American policy.

Corruption grows

Aristide’s rule was also plagued by steadily worsening corruption, including the use of Haiti for the transshipment of illegal drugs. How high the corruption reached isn’t clear, but, along with the cut off of international aid, it effectively sidetracked the administration’s progressive social platform. For a variety of reasons -- some of Aristide’s own doing, some manufactured in Washington -- the expectations of the poor were never realized. Although Aristide still has supporters here, they are far fewer than in the past.

“Despite all his fiery rhetoric against the wealthy, the gap between rich and poor didn’t close. Like every Haitian president before him, Aristide did little to respond to the basic needs of the people, needs like food, education and health care. At the end, he armed paramilitary groups to defend himself and his personal power. When that happened, young people cut their relationship with him, and it was just a matter of time until he had to go,” said Burnet Cherisol, a former Catholic priest who studied with Aristide at the Grand Séminaire Notre-Dame in Port-au-Prince.

Many fault the ousted president for being more priest than politician. “When he took power, Aristide didn’t believe in the structures that already existed. He only trusted what he brought from the outside. It’s a typical attitude of religious, who feel sent, who believe themselves to be chosen from above. He became president of a country with a very weak government, and he was able to take advantage of that weakness to do away with the minimum state structure we had and in its place construct a form of individual power. Everything was concentrated in Aristide. What he thought and said was the position of the government,” said Colette Lespinasse, coordinator of the Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees.

Lespinasse said Aristide built government bureaucracies that served his personal power rather than the good of the nation. “To understand what has happened in Haiti it’s necessary to understand the person Aristide, though he’s not all that uncommon. In the United States there’s a president who is very similar to Aristide. But because the institutions there are strong, and the laws respected, the president of the U.S. cannot do whatever he wants. Haiti is different,” Lespinasse told NCR.

Today an Anglican priest and rector of the Episcopal University of Haiti, Cherisol was once an Aristide supporter. “After a few years of his presidency, however, I quit going to talk with him. I quit responding to invitations to the palace. I realized he was headed down the wrong road. He made too many enemies too fast. Aristide has some of the fault for this, but so do we who supported him. When we worked for Aristide to take over we believed that only he could resolve our problems. We believed that only Aristide had the popularity to win the elections and face down the Tonton Macoutes [the dictator’s brutal police]. That was a mistake. Even Jesus Christ, who was God, came to this earth and died, yet life kept on going. No one is indispensable,” Cherisol told NCR.

The transition from Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was overthrown in 1986, to Aristide, who won the 1990 presidential election by a landslide, was too quick to be healthy for Haitian political culture, proving that shortcuts to democracy don’t work, Cherisol argues. “When Duvalier was overthrown, the people handed over their destiny to the liberator, Aristide. Some people warned that this was dangerous, but others of us said, ‘Don’t worry, let’s keep going,’ ” Cherisol said.

Hopes for change

This time around, Cherisol hopes things have changed. Besides the wealthy political elite and the rebels, Aristide faced fierce opposition in his final months from university youth, women’s groups and the press. “This time people are opening their eyes. The young people in the university are demanding that the government pay attention to basic needs, or else get out. They are demanding attention to education, food, security and health, and they’ll take to the streets again if change doesn’t take place. They’re ready to die to get what they want. For me, that’s where our hope is. And women are waking up all over and speaking out. They are demanding to participate in the political discussion in our country. This is relatively new, and it’s also a source of hope,” Cherisol said.

Although the 15-member Caribbean Community refuses to recognize Haiti’s new government until the U.S. role in Aristide’s ouster is clarified, most Haitians seem to be giving Latortue the benefit of the doubt. At least for now. The real test of his administration will be how soon his administration can disarm rebels and lower dramatically inflated prices for rice -- a basic staple of the Haitian diet. And stimulating employment is essential for long-term progress. “If you want people to forget robbing and raping, then give them jobs. You can’t talk about democracy in Haiti when two-thirds of the people are living in the 17th century,” said Michael Kuehn, the Lutheran World Federation’s representative here.

Latortue’s cabinet has complained of inheriting bare offices and plundered budgets, but as the weeks go by that excuse is wearing thin. “The government is working too slow. It must act quickly to restore the authority of the state. We want to rebuild the country, and we need a government to take the lead in that process,” said Marie Yolene Gilles, a program official with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.

Gilles admits she is “concerned” about Latortue’s plans to resuscitate the army, which Aristide abolished. An army is allowed by the country’s constitution, but critics say reinstating former army officers with blood on their hands would be a grave mistake. Rebuilding the country’s justice system so it can deal with accusations of abuse is a critical step in that process, she says. “If we’re going to have an army, we need a completely clean army that respects human rights,” Gilles told NCR.

Lespinasse warns that the government can’t be left alone to resolve the country’s problems. “We’ve got lots of problems to face, and what will happen depends on aware Haitians, on our ability to give a new orientation to the country. Although there are several things that worry me, I have confidence in this new government if we can help it do its job. Otherwise we’ll fall back into what we had before. If this government fails, it’s a failure of not just the government, but of everyone,” she said.

Cherisol hopes the country has learned from its trauma. “My worry is that the people will be too demanding and not give the present government enough time to maneuver and learn to manage the problems,” he said. “But it’s better that people demand too much than too little.”

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer who lived for two decades in Central America. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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