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5887: Aristide poised for election... (fwd)
Aristide poised for election as hopes dimish (?)for Haiti
November 21, 2000 Web posted at: 10:18 PM EST (0318 GMT)
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- It's election time in Haiti, and a crowd
is gathering in a dance hall in St. Louis-de-Sud for a lecture about
democracy. Suddenly a car with smoked-glass windows brakes in a cloud of
dust. The mayor leaps out, fires his pistol in the air, and bellows: "No
one has the right to hold a meeting in my town without my permission!"
In the days before Sunday's presidential election, such disturbing
spectacles were hardly unusual in Haiti, where the presidential race
kept losing candidates and the only near-certainty was the return to
power of a former slum parish priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Ten years ago, crowded into the central town of Hinche and spilling over
onto surrounding hills, tens of thousands of Haitians heard the
charismatic Aristide promise to lift up their downtrodden souls and put
food in growling stomachs. Two months ago about 5,000 people marched
into that same town, yelling"Down with Aristide!"
Today, after a series of coups and flawed elections, spasms of violence,
and the intervention of 20,000 American soldiers in "Operation Restore
Democracy,"Haiti is the third hungriest nation after Afghanistan and
Somalia, according to a U.N. report.
Growing economic isolation
Having gone ahead with the election in a climate of fear and an
opposition boycott, Haiti may find itself abandoned by the international
community that furnishes 60 percent of its budget. "We've worked very
hard for many years now and basically we can't see we've gotten
anywhere, so there's no point in throwing good money after bad," said
Luigi Einaudi, assistant secretary-general of the Organization of
American States. And yet people like Marie Yvonne, laundering linen in
the noonday sun, refuse to give up on Aristide."There's nobody else and
nothing else to pin our hopes on. I don't want to think about what'll
happen if he fails," she said. Her laundry work in the St. Martin slum
of the capital earns her 1,500 gourdes($68) a month, which means she
hasn't hit rock bottom. She can still afford sugared water for her three
children when they wake up ravenous at night.Others have to make do with
balls of clay to fool the pangs of hunger. Though Yvonne's life has
barely changed during Haiti's tumultuous past decade, Aristide's
definitely has. The 47-year-old people's priest has two daughters now.
He receives visitors in the walled 40-acre (16-hectare) suburban estate
where he was married in 1996 to the strains of Viennese waltzes floating
over the swimming pool around which the 800 guests assembled.
Meanwhile, the slums get bigger. With the rush from the denuded,
deforested countryside to Port-au-Prince, the capital now has 2.5
million of Haiti's 8 million people, crammed into hovels, mostly
illiterate and jobless, with little electric power or clean water, and
no safety from armed burglars and rapists. Most of the wealthy live in
the cooler heights of Petionville, above the sweltering capital,
crisscrossed by gullies swarming with squatters who live in raw
concrete cubicles. New residential quarters have mushroomed here
recently, and some believe that many of these quarter-million-dollar,
three-floor concrete bastions are the proceeds of a cocaine trade that
is one of the few things flourishing in Haiti.
Legacy of political violence
Haiti is the world's first black republic, independent since a slave
rebellion against the French resulted in independence in 1804. But its
modern history has been an unhappy one, under an elite that assumed the
cruel ways of the former slave masters, leading up to the murderous
dynasty of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his Tonton Macoute militia.
After the Duvalier reign finally ended, the 1990s became Aristide's
decade. In 1990, voters poured into polling stations with an almost
religious fervor to elect their beloved "Titid," a diminutive, messianic
figure who called capitalism evil and the United States satanic.
But after only seven months in power the army ousted him and he went
into exile in the United States. For three years people lived in terror
as soldiers searched out and killed and tortured his followers. Some
4,000 died. Many others risked their lives on rickety, overcrowded boats
headed for Florida. Despite intense pressure at home not to back the
America-baiting Aristide, President Clinton in 1994 sent 20,000 soldiers
to stop the killings and halt the exodus of boat people. A U.S.
helicopter flew Aristide to the National Palace. The world pledged a
billion dollars to lift Haiti out of poverty and build democracy.
Aristide welcomed American investors -- those erstwhile hated
capitalists -- as "my dear friends." Clinton came on a triumphant visit
in 1995, when U.S. troops gave way to 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers.
"Haiti today is a nation where people are building roads to get to
market rather than boats to escape terror," Sandy Berger, the deputy
U.S. national security adviser, declared in 1995. That year Aristide
fought against a constitutional provision against consecutive
presidential terms, arguing he was entitled to serve the three years he
lost in exile. But local and foreign pressure forced him into stepping
down and he eventually handed the reins to his protege, Rene Preval, who
took office in February 1996 in Haiti's first democratic transfer of
power. The U.N. peacekeepers departed in December 1997. In their stead
they left an untried and distrusted new civilian force, replacing the
army that Aristide had disbanded. That force has recently been rocked by
charges that seven police chiefs were plotting to kill Preval and
Aristide. Democracy didn't fare well after the Americans and U.N. forces
left. Confronted with an opposition Parliament, Preval simply locked its
doors and ruled by decree. Aristide, meanwhile, kept a low profile
behind his mansion walls.
Opponents say elections rigged
Aristide's opponents maintain that while Preval ruled by decree,
Aristide was planning his comeback, and that Preval, his protege, rigged
local and legislative elections this year to clear the way for one-man,
one-party rule by Aristide.That is why the main opposition parties
boycotted the presidential race. Aristide's six opponents were virtual
unknowns -- three withdrew and the others didn't campaign. Aristide
himself hasn't spoken in public since Oct. 9, when he registered his
candidacy as head of the Lavalas Family party. Even Aristide backers
like Pierre Paul, a 44-year-old chauffeur, were dismayed by this
non-campaign. "This is not electioneering. It's a crying shame!" he
said. "Our party would have won hands down on an even playing field. We
should rerun the races and show the world that we are not pariahs."
Gerard Jean-Pierre, a 65-year-old cockfight judge, agrees.
He believes Aristide's 1990 election emblem, a fighting cock, helped him
handily defeat 10 heavyweight opponents. But he didn't expect voters to
turn out for a one-sided fight. "Aristide is our champion," he said.
"But who wants to see a gamecock pitted against plucked hens?"
Herve Denis is a former information minister in Aristide's government.
Now he is one of many disenchanted former allies of Aristide. "Aristide
has marginalized the opposition," he said. "Few will vote, and those who
do will soon realize that the corrupt, incompetent, power-hungry
Lavalas Family circle has marginalized them, too."It was Denis who gave
the talk on democracy November 4 that so offended Mayor Henricles
Joachim, an Aristide man. Since then, Denis said, unidentified gunmen
prowl at night in front of his midtown residence. It wasn't the only
incident of unruliness by mayors, raising the specter of Haiti
dissolving into warring fiefdoms for want of a law-abiding government
that respects human rights."Several mayors have declared themselves in
favor of taking law and order into their own hands. If there is no
clampdown, we greatly fear that the mayors will form their own
militias," Amnesty International has warned. In one 24-hour period of
November 3-4, 10 people were shot and killed and 27 wounded in outbreaks
of street violence in the capital. Guns are only one of the threats
facing ordinary Haitians.
Haiti faces severe domestic problems
When rain fell last month on Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second city, the
eroded hills,treeless after years of cutting for charcoal burners, could
not soak up the water.At least four people drowned, and 10,000 slum
dwellers were left homeless. Agronomists say the gray hills could green
in five years if saplings were permitted to grow to maturity. But
government inaction is the rule. In 1956, 20 percent of the
Belgium-sized country was forested. Now it is less than 1.5 percent.
Last year, inflation was about 9 percent. This year, it will top 15
percent. Staple food prices have gone up more than 50 percent this year.
According to the U.N. food report, 62 percent of the population is
undernourished. The Yvonne family last year could occasionally afford a
meat or fish sauce with its one meal a day of rice or corn mush. No
more. To augment her laundry earnings, she sometimes borrows from a loan
shark. The interest on her 500-gourde ($23) loan is 50 gourdes ($2.30) a
month. She doesn't know how long it will take to repay the debt.
Nearby, a lean teen-age boy is wading in the water of the canal. He is
competing with pigs for floating garbage bags, looking for something to
eat. Cindy, 11, and Daphne, 12, are sitting on a boulder in a
Petionville slum. They are weeping, they say, with frustration and
hunger. They say their principal expelled them because they did not have
notebooks. Notebooks cost 5 gourdes (23 cents) and their parents can't
afford them. The sisters speak with admiration of friends aged 13 and 14
who "sell their bodies" for food and pretty clothes.
With 5 percent of the work force infected, Haiti has the highest AIDS
rate in the Caribbean, which itself is suffering an epidemic second in
scope only to Africa. Three out of five Haitians are illiterate, but
only 2,500 have been taught how to read and write since 1995, a recent
government-commissioned study shows. One of Yvonne's neighbors, 84-year
old Gilio Joseph, sits in a shady nook of an alley making kerosene lamps
to support herself and her 18-year-old grandson.Using pincers, the gaunt
old woman picks a red-hot piece of charcoal out of a brazier and solders
a wickholder around the hole she has punched into the top of an empty
condensed milk can. Demand is strong because of increasing electricity
outages. "I started making them 40 years ago," Joseph says. "If I had
known how bad things would become, I wouldn't have wanted to live so
long." She says it with a toothless, indomitable smile.