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Contributor: Catherine Matheson
on the road to democracy?

Haiti, the world's first independent black republic and the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, has attracted international attention recently as the focus of one of the United Nations' latest experiments in global peace-keeping. The UN presence helped to oversee local and parliamentary elections on June 25 and run-offs in July which have been won decisively by parties supporting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Even more decisive could be the December presidential election in which a replacement is sought for Aristide, the priest turned politician, restored to power last October by the US.

Graffiti is already being scrawled on the walls of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, proclaiming "Aristide - President for Life". This is probably what many Haitians would like to see. Such is the popularity of the diminutive leader of the Caribbean country. Although Aristide should give up power next February under Haiti's constitution, intended to prevent other dictatorships like those of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, many justify a continuation because he spent three years of his term in exile. He was ousted by the military only months after taking office.

Among the poor, Aristide is a hero, explains Mr Chavannes, a farmer with 11 children. "I am happy Aristide came back because I think that before, too many people were dying and now it's not like that, although it's still unstable," he says.

During the three years of military rule ended by the US invasion in September 1994, at least 3,000 people were killed for political reasons, about 100,000 fled the country to the neighbouring Dominican Republic and at least 55,000 fled by sea to the US and other Caribbean countries. It was the influx of Haitian boat people into Florida that forced Washington to take action against Haiti's generals.

The elections were for two-thirds of the 27-member Senate, 83 deputies for the lower house, 560 rural commissioners, more than one hundred mayors and thousands more local officials. Supporters of President Aristide swept the board although the turnout was low, with less than 50 per cent of voters going to the polls in most places. There were many mistakes and omissions on the ballot papers and a month previously, 800,000 papers were stolen. Polling stations which opened late or could not handle the number of voters were opened again the following day. The presence of more than 6,000 UN soldiers and several hundred foreign observers is thought to have encouraged the comparatively peaceful poll in what is only the second free election in Haiti's history. With most of the results known, it appears that progressive parties under Aristide's Lavalas coalition (Lavalas means 'the flood' in Creole) have won, although many on the left are very disillusioned about the president's less radical stance since the Americans returned him to power.

Also looking to the elections are international investors waiting to see if Haiti is a good bet for their money. After the international embargo imposed on most goods, including petrol, during the military regime, the Haitian economy is struggling for survival. So are its people - the country's earnings average at ?132 per person a year. Transport has been impossible at times because of the price of petrol, and Haiti's few industries - mainly in clothing and baseballs - had to close down. Many people in the towns earn a living selling second-hand clothes and food on the streets. Port-au-Prince is said to have the largest street market in the world, after Lesotho.

Interviews with street vendors show how hard it is to make a living. Jeanette Lundi sells fried fruit snacks outside a church on the main road on the western outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Her husband is still trying to earn a living farming in the countryside while she and their ten children have come to the capital. She leaves the younger ones in the care of the older ones while she is out. It costs 25 Haitian dollars to buy the fruit in the morning and she seldom makes more than a few dollars for a day's work. It costs 69 Haitian dollars a term to send a child to school and flour costs about 3 dollars per kilo. "It's not easy, but we have to hang on," she says.

Seventy per cent of Haiti's population live on small farms in the countryside where there are few proper roads. The main crops - rice, beans, maize and bananas - are grown for eating, rather than selling. The electricity supply is erratic and the government is largely unable to provide services like health care and schools. Life expectancy in Haiti is only 55 years and one in ten children die before their first birthdays. Unemployment and underemployment are estimated at 75 per cent.

A Haitian priest, Father Burnet Ch?risol, who works in the impoverished north-west of the country, has set up three feeding centres for malnourished children under five with funds from Christian Aid, a British and Irish charity. "There were no harvests where this child lives," he said, as two-year-old Facturelle Henrilsey was lifted onto the scales. Rainfall is now notoriously unreliable in the area after existing tree cover was cut down for charcoal. Although much of the north-west is natural desert studded with cacti, it used to have some predictable rainfall. United Nations Development Programme expert Gaston Georges says that nationally Haiti used to have 80 per cent tree cover and that this is now down to 2-3 per cent, causing serious erosion of topsoil. Most felling was done to clear land for agriculture because poor farmers needed to feed their families. "There will be no development if there is no action on reclaiming the environment," says Mr Georges.

So what are the roots of Haiti's problems, both national and international? Most Haitians are the descendants of enslaved West Africans brought over to work the plantations. They founded the first independent black republic when they overthrew their French rulers in 1804 after a long insurrection. The national language, Creole, is a mixture of French and African tongues and many people practise voodoo, an animist religion with African origins and Christian influences. However, a French-speaking ?lite descended from colonial planters owns much of Haiti's national wealth, such as it is. A trade unionist who works with peasant organisations, and spent many years in hiding, comments drily: "There are people in Haiti who don't want things to be better and they control the state."

Haiti's ?lite has a common cause with US business interests. In March the Assistant Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, led a 50-strong business mission to Haiti to promote foreign investment. A number of assembly plants are already back in operation providing more than 6,000 jobs. The government offered tax breaks and lower tariffs for US firms, together with a promise of better phones and electricity supply. The Washington Post revealed that the Mevs family, despite being inadequate for the job, won a lucrative contract to supply electricity to Port-au-Prince from an offshore barge.

Although last September's US invasion to restore Aristide was widely acclaimed, it did not tackle the deep-rooted causes of Haiti's problems. For instance, those guilty of human rights abuses have not been punished, and many still possess their weapons. US Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager said in March that about 30,000 weapons and munitions had been confiscated but it was impossible to conduct rigorous searches. Many human rights abuses have been committed by FRAPH, the Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress - armed gunmen who are the heirs of the Tontons Macoutes, the henchmen of Duvalier. US journalists have found evidence that the CIA supported FRAPH. The fear among activists and Aristide supporters is that the killers could return at any time.

There is also evidence that rape was used by anti-Aristide gunmen to intimidate and punish women who supported Lavalas. The Centre for Research and Development in Action in Port-au-Prince documented 200 cases of rape between 1993 and 1994. One of them was Linette Hyppolite, a market vendor who used to sell cosmetics to support herself and her child. In February 1994 there was a big demonstration in Linette's neighbourhood against the international embargo which was supposed to bring about the return of Aristide. It was organised by FRAPH. Many people in Linette's neighbourhood did not go and neither did she. That night FRAPH gunmen came back. They fired their guns into the air, assaulted a number of people and raped several women, including Linette. They also took ?100 she had borrowed to buy cosmetics to sell. Now she is in debt and homeless because she is too scared to return to the house where she was raped.

If Haiti is to have a peaceful future, much depends on the training of the new civilian police force and the revamping of the judicial system. A US and Canadian-run police academy is training a force of 6,000 - 7,000 officers of which the first 375 cadets graduated in June. The interim police force operating under United Nations police monitors is not well-regarded and some of its members come from the old regime guilty of human rights abuses. Common crime is reported to be rife with many violent robberies and murders. In April about 90 people were killed. However, the military and police have been separated and the 43 most senior military officers discharged by Aristide as part of his plan to abolish the army entirely.

As for the courts, the Justice Minister, Jean-Joseph Exume, in a letter to international donor agencies in March said: "Judges, often selected due to their acquaintances or their willingness to bow to their benefactors' requests, give 'justice' to the highest bidder and/or the most powerful." About $25 million has been committed internationally to carry out reforms.

The economic "reforms" advocated by the US administration, as well as the IMF and World Bank, are reported to have split Aristide's cabinet. The measures include the privatisation of state companies such as the national cement works and the flour mill, a hike in the price of gasoline and the near total elimination of tariffs on foreign goods. In Haiti's rice-bowl area, the Artibonite, the story of peasant farmer Roger D?sinor shows why a free market could be a bad idea for Haitian farmers. Mr D?sinor has a small bit of land on which he grows rice and plantains. He has six children of whom five are at school, and his wife sells snacks to passers-by. Rice imported from the US costs about the same at the moment but should any more be imported from the US, says Mr D?sinor, "it is definitely a threat to our own production". He adds: "Please don't send us rice when we have our harvests because then you break our market and we go bankrupt."

International loans of $1.2 billion have been promised to Haiti of which half are expected to come on stream within the next ten months. But the Aristide government has so few professionally qualified people that there are no proper plans for how to spend most of the money yet. The country's total debt at the end of 1993 was US $773 million.

Now that the Aristide coalition has achieved a strong showing in the elections, the President and those closest to him may regain their confidence and reinstate some elements of the radical programme for which he was overthrown in 1991. The question is, can he or any future government manage to institute real change? The United Nations multi-national force, which has a US commander and nearly half of its troops American, is due to remain until after the new president takes office next February. As long as it holds the purse strings, the US is likely to set the limits beyond which a Haitian government cannot go. However, most analysts agree that a return to right-wing military rule is unlikely and a substantial number of the Haitian people at least seem to feel it is worth participating in the democratic process. As a Haitian priest said: "It's part of Haitian culture that however bad today has been, tomorrow could be better."

Catherine Matheson is a journalist for Christian Aid, specialising in Latin American and Caribbean affairs.
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