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6987: The Economist on Haiti (fwd)
From: Max Blanchet <email@example.com>
Another half-chance for Aristide and Haiti
Feb 8th 2001 | PORT-AU-PRINCE
>From The Economist print edition
There can be no doubting that their new president is popular among Haitians.
His task now is to satisfy foreign aid donors about his intentions
IN THE tropical sunlight, the walls of the freshly repainted national palace
are so dazzlingly white that it hurts to look at them. Passers-by must avert
their eyes from the seat of power as they cross the newly dolled-up park in
the centre of Port-au-Prince. All the more glaring is the contrast with the
city's huge slums of Cité Soleil and Belair, where the streets remain, as
ever, paved with rubbish.
Yet the people of the slums see the redecoration more cheerfully. "It's an
example of the government's will to bring about change," says Costaho Blemy
of RaRam, a rara band of street musicians in Belair. Hopes are high, too, in
Cité Soleil. "We have six hours of electricity a day," says Dasmy Louinel, a
leader of COMICS, a neighbourhood group linked to the Lavalas Family party
of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "After February 7th, we will have it 24 hours a
That is a lot to ask of Mr Aristide, who on February 7th was sworn in as
president of Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas (with a GDP per head
of $1,379 measured by purchasing-power parity). When, a decade ago, he
became the first elected president after the hated dictatorships of the
Duvalier family, Mr Aristide promised to raise Haiti's people out of
"misery" and into "poverty with dignity". He had little time to do so. A
military coup robbed him of three of his five years in office. In 1994, the
United States sent 20,000 troops to restore him to power-but on the
condition that he did not extend his term to compensate for the time lost.
Instead, he handed over to his chosen successor, René Préval. Mr Aristide, a
former Catholic priest and radical leftist, kept control behind the scenes,
and lived in a luxurious house in an upper-class neighbourhood (he never
explained fully how it was paid for). His election last November came six
months after much-delayed local and parliamentary elections, which saw fraud
in the vote-counting: ten Senate seats should have gone to a second round,
but were awarded straight to Lavalas.
That, on top of months of intimidation and the murder of opposition
candidates, prompted foreign donors to suspend the aid on which Haiti's
economy depends. The main opposition parties boycotted the presidential
election. Officially, turnout was 61%; local journalists say it was under
Getting the foreign money back is Mr Aristide's first priority. Around $500m
(or 14% of GDP) in aid and loans is unspent. Some of it has been held up for
years by political deadlock between the opposition and Mr Préval, some
suspended since last May's elections. The donors' conditions for restoring
aid vary. But all, including the Bush administration in Washington, agree
that Haiti must set up a new electoral council that includes opposition
members, and hold run-off elections for the disputed Senate seats.
In December, Mr Aristide wrote to Bill Clinton promising that, and more: to
co-operate in fighting Haiti's fast-growing drug trade, strengthen the
police and judicial system, carry out economic reforms and include
opposition members in his government. He continued in this vein in his
inaugural speech, promising dialogue with the opposition.
But while Mr Aristide knows he needs international aid, "he will do the
minimum necessary to obtain it," predicts a foreign diplomat in
Port-au-Prince. It helps Mr Aristide that the letter to Mr Clinton, drafted
with (or maybe by) Anthony Lake, the then-president's special envoy, is so
vaguely worded as to be almost non-committal.
After several postponements, Mr Aristide met the Convergence for Democracy,
a 15-party opposition coalition, but the talks lasted barely two days before
collapsing on February 5th. The Convergence said that it would form an
alternative government, led by a former presidential candidate, Gérard
Gourgue, and invited Mr Aristide to join it.
Social issues, and thugs
That is high farce. No foreign governments will recognise the Convergence
alternative. But the donors' demands are pretty farcical too. Even if the
election last May had been held properly, Lavalas would have won most or all
of the disputed seats. The opposition is fragmented, ranging from former
Marxists to ex-Duvalier supporters, and lacks the power to scrutinise aid
The opposition mostly represents the upper-middle class and intellectual
elite. By contrast, Lavalas Family is a tightly-run and powerful movement.
It has deep roots in Haiti's poorest communities through such groups as
COMICS, as well as rara bands that sing about political and social issues,
and the chimères-violent young agitators who seem to be Mr Aristide's
budding version of the Tontons Macoutes, the Duvaliers' notoriously thuggish
enforcers. "We've heard of the opposition," says Mr Louinel in Cité Soleil,
"but they've never come down here."
The Convergence is undeterred. "We will build networks and gain the people's
support, the same way we did under Duvalier," says Mischa Gaillard, a former
ally of Mr Aristide now in the opposition. "But it took time and we had to
fight," he adds.
A day before Mr Aristide was sworn in, the UN closed its police-training and
human-rights mission. Many donors are disillusioned by Haiti's inability to
govern itself with probity or efficiency. To convince them otherwise, Mr
Aristide will have to make sure that any money he gets is spent on things
like more electricity for Cité Soleil.