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29517: Hermantin(News)Small steps help pull Haiti back from the brink (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Small steps help pull Haiti back from the brink

By Stevenson Jacobs
The Associated Press

November 16, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti · Young men with pistols roam the fetid slums of Haiti's capital, but now many are looking for jobs instead of victims. Children in checkered uniforms walk to school on dusty streets where stray bullets used to whiz past.

Five months into Haiti's latest attempt at democracy, small but important improvements have pulled the Caribbean nation from the brink of collapse. Perhaps most notably, an unprecedented wave of kidnappings finally seems to be leveling off.

A year ago, Haiti was engulfed in violence that began with the February 2004 rebel uprising that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, died in almost daily clashes among well-armed gangs, former rebels, rogue police and U.N. peacekeepers.

Today, a new government led by elected President René Préval has passed a budget, begun to collect taxes, raised $750 million in foreign aid and launched a campaign to disarm hundreds of gangsters.

The economy is starting to show small but encouraging signs of life. Double-digit inflation that soared after the revolt is starting to fall, while vital cash sent home by Haitians working abroad has increased and overall growth is expected to reach 2.5 percent this year.

"It's a very different place today," U.S. Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson said.

"There are some real accomplishments and some real things that, when looked at over a year, are encouraging."

Peace and stability are far from assured. Huge challenges remain, from employing slum dwellers and rebuilding shattered infrastructure, to equipping Haiti's police.

"This is a country where almost everything is broken," Sanderson said.

A drive across the capital, along streets cratered with giant potholes, underscores her point.

Street children with swollen bellies beg for money, crying "I'm hungry" in Creole as they cluster around stopped cars. Few Haitians have electricity or running water. Jobs are scarce. Acrid black smoke rises day and night from burning tires thrown on trash heaps.

Haiti ranked 153rd of 177 countries in the United Nations' most recent report on global quality of life, behind Sudan and Zimbabwe and ahead of countries including Nigeria, Congo and Sierra Leone. A recent World Bank report lists Haiti as one of 26 states at risk of collapse.

But buoyed by its modest progress, the government is wooing foreign investors, even touting Haiti as a Caribbean vacation spot.

"There is some kind of window of opportunity and the sense of stability that the country has some future," said Edmond Mulet, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti.

"It's still a fragile situation. I wouldn't say we've turned a corner yet, but I think in the next months we'll be able to assume that, hopefully."

The key will be security.

After the revolt, gangs loyal to Aristide launched a wave of killings and kidnappings aimed at destabilizing a U.S.-backed interim government, which was accused of persecuting Aristide supporters. Everyone was a potential victim, including foreign missionaries, security guards and even former first lady Lucienne Heurtelou Estime, an elderly widow shot dead at a jewelry store in May.

The number of reported kidnappings fell from about 80 in August to half that last month, Mulet said. Officials attribute the decrease to government-led negotiations with gangs and increased police and U.N. patrols.

Last month the government unveiled a U.N.-administered program to disarm up to 1,000 low-level gangsters in exchange for food grants, civics courses and training for such jobs as mechanics and electricians.

So far, 109 Haitians have been enrolled, Mulet said, and dozens of weapons recovered.

But gang leaders wanted for murder and other serious crimes aren't eligible for the program, and Haitians fear gang members will return to kidnapping if they don't get jobs, which are scarce.

Copyright © 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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