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#3393: Violence leave Haiti's poor little choice (fwd)

From: Rosann Clements <rosann@onemain.com>

Violence leave Haiti's poor little choice

James Ferguson
Saturday April 29, 2000

It is a long, expensive and perilous journey by boat from the north coast
ports of Haiti to the promised land of Florida, and many of those who set
out never make it. The risks are all too well known in Haiti, as is the fact
that unscrupulous boat-owners often charge hundreds of dollars only to dump
their passengers on some deserted Bahamian outcrop. A one-way ticket will
involve selling everything, leaving behind family and community for an
uncertain future in New York or Miami. And yet thousands of Haitians are
willing to take their chance each year, fully aware of the odds against
The latest exodus is nothing new. The boat people phenomenon became an
international cause for concern in the 1980s, when a combination of
political repression under "Baby Doc" Duvalier and long-standing economic
hardship forced boatloads of Haitians on to the open sea. The numbers
swelled still further during the politically unstable 1990s as a succession
of military regimes ruled incompetently and cruelly in the western
hemisphere's poorest country.
The violent overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 unleashed
a torrent of would-be refugees, whose arrival on the beaches of Florida was
a key factor in President Clinton's decision to reinstate Mr Aristide by
force of arms. Now it looks as if Mr Aristide will be back in
Port-au-Prince's presidential palace early next year with an overwhelming
majority in December's elections, for there is simply no credible
But the political situation, for all its inevitability, has not brought
stability or even the glimmer of economic recovery. The current government,
widely perceived as a stop-gap before Mr Aristide returns, has presided over
an alarming level of violence - both political and criminal, while local
elections, currently scheduled for May 21, are likely either to be seriously
flawed or not take place at all.
The last vestiges of Duvalierism may have disappeared, but authoritarian
politics persist. Mr Aristide's supporters are seemingly impatient for the
return of "the Messiah", and recent demonstrations have been threatening. A
well-known journalist was recently assassinated, and a report by Human
Rights Watch and other organizations has warned of a spiral of politically
motivated violence.
Some commentators are concerned that the extreme wing of Mr Aristide's camp
may be forming a paramilitary force not unlike the Duvaliers' feared Tontons
But although political fear is certainly a factor, it is sheer poverty that
is usually behind any Haitian refugee crisis, and the current exodus is no
exception. The country remains stubbornly poor, with average annual income
of £320 competing with sub-Saharan Africa in terms of deprivation.
A few thousand, mostly light-skinned families, live the good life, some from
import-export businesses, others allegedly from drug-smuggling, but the vast
majority of Haiti's 6m barely scratch a living from small farms or,
increasingly, in the shanty towns of the capital.
With life expectancy at about 50 and infant mortality rates at 100 per
1,000, Haiti's social indicators are among the world's worst. HIV infection
is rife, while rural poverty and land shortages have forced many peasants to
cut down any available tree for charcoal, creating an environmental disaster
unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. Overcrowded, impoverished and utterly
dependent on cheap food imports, Haiti is the proverbial basket case, its
traditional peasant economy ruined by lack of investment and soil erosion.
If Haitian politicians like to blame the US and other donors for slow and
inadequate aid, the international community has largely lost patience with
Haiti's feuding political class. For more than a year recently, the country
had no real government, as its warring political cliques repeatedly rejected
President Prèval's nominations for prime minister.
No government meant no aid, and as ever the real losers were Haiti's poor.
It is perhaps not surprising that many of them are willing to sell their
land or house in a final desperate gamble to reach a better life.
• James Ferguson is the author of A Traveller's History of the Caribbean
(Windrush Press)