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From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 6 (IPS) -- Taxi driver Petit Rodrigue prays for the day
he can get a Canadian or U.S. visa to leave his native Haiti.
   After 12 years as an airport cabby, he does not even own the converted
pick-up he drives, but has to pay the owner the equivalent of $40 a day, a
fortune here, to rent the vehicle. Some days he does not earn enough to
make the payment.
   "The situation here is so hopeless. My wife does not have a job either.
So far in life, I have not done anything for my six boys. I don't know what
will happen to them when they leave school. I pray God will, one day,
change my life," says Rodrigue, a devout Christian.
   In the meanwhile, as a fact-finding mission from the 14-member Caribbean
Community (CARICOM) found last week, this island of eight million people
remains in dire straits.
   So worried is the regional by reports that law and order is breaking
down against a backdrop of political tension and economic misery, that
yesterday its heads of government, meeting in Belize, urged Haiti's
international donors to release more than $600 million in suspended aid,
saying this is the only way out to keep the nation from sliding into even
deeper poverty than prevails now.
   "Failing that, it is going to be a catastrophe," Bahamas Prime Minister
Hubert Ingraham told reporters in Belize City.
   Led by Julian Hunte, St. Lucia's foreign minister, the CARICOM mission
to Haiti followed just weeks after the Organization of American States
(OAS) had censured Haiti and called for an independent international
investigation of the Dec. 17 burning of buildings owned by opposition
parties and government critics.
   The fires followed an attack on the National Palace that was deemed a
coup attempt by the government of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide, the
former Catholic priest turned populist politician whose claim to victory at
the polls two years remains in dispute. The opposition, however, said the
violence was contrived to provide pretext for a crackdown against them.
   Several journalists also were beaten, government supporters tried to
burn down at least two radio stations, and at least 15 journalists sought
political asylum in the United States, Canada, and France.
   The Association of Haitian Journalists says its members fled overseas
knowing full well that they could be killed for speaking out as two of
their colleagues have been in the past two years.
   Many others, including association secretary Guy Delva, say forces
linked to Aristide's government have publicly threatened them.
   Delva says others are physically attacked or roughed up on the streets
by government partisans every day. He charges that well- known suspects
involved in the killings, the burnings and the beatings, have been released
by the police without charges and continue to operate with impunity. He is
upset about what he calls silence from officialdom.
   "There is great hostility towards the press in Haiti. The main pillars
of democracy in Haiti are very week, the police, the judiciary and the
system of governance, and there is a climate of insecurity on the island,"
says Hunte.
   Even as Hunte's mission met a wide range of groups, they could not
escape the conclusion that Haiti, with its history of dictatorships and
repressive regimes, is slowly becoming a basket case.
   Only 700,000 of Haiti's eight million-plus people have accounts with the
14 commercial banks in Haiti and fewer 500,000 have health or life
insurance. The state's pension plan is almost bankrupt. Since many Haitians
lack even birth certificates, let alone commercially acceptable collateral,
they obtain credit from community micro-lending agencies that are less
demanding about identification. Managers at the two foreign lending
institutions, Scotia and Citibank, voice frustration at this forgone
   Up to 60 percent of the population is believed to be illiterate and
about 65 percent is listed by the United Nations as living below the
poverty line. Per capita income is estimated at between 400 and 450
dollars, the worst in the hemisphere. The average life expectancy rate for
women is 56 and for men, 52 -- also the lowest in the region.
   Foreign-owned hotels like Club Med have pulled out. Caribbean- owned
businesses like Capital Life of Barbados are doing likewise, claiming that
the climate of fear and insecurity have rendered the country an unsafe
place in which to do business.
   Vendors, some selling second hand clothing sent by relatives in the
United States, appear to have taken over almost every street in the capital
and its suburbs. They have even set up shop outside government ministries.
They sell and prepare meals for sale among heaps of smelly garbage, dust
flying everywhere.
   Ingraham says many Haitians drown while trying to reach the Bahamas
every day. Last month alone, the coast guard repatriated nearly 1,000.
   Key pieces of legislation, including annual budgets, are gathering dust
in lawmakers' filing cabinets.
   Andrae Apaid, a leading businessman and major player in a civil society
coalition pushing for political and fiscal reforms, says the country is
operating on the basis of a 1996-97 budget. "That is how bad it is in
Haiti," he says. "Something has to give."
   Caribbean leaders say that unless some money is released to government,
all the arguments about the need for good governance would be undermined
because every institution would break down.
   Marc Bazin, Haiti's planning minister and a former prime minister, says
that unless the state and international community address poverty, and
unless government and the opposition resolve their disputes quickly, the
country will sink into oblivion.
   Like the regional leaders, he says he wants the millions in aid withheld
from Haiti to be restored under strict international supervision.
   In two years, Haiti will celebrate 200 years of independence from
France, won after Haitian slaves and nationalists chased out French
colonizers from the shores of the 27,000 square kilometer island.
   Bazin says he thinks there is little to show for it after all these
years, that two centuries of mismanagement have clearly derailed Haiti. "To
a large extent, the political crisis is the result of a long series of
missteps of our own making," says the 70-year-old.
   As an indication of how desperate life has become, peasants looted
thousands of bags of rice from a boat that docked in the harbor last week.
Bazin says this is a clear signal that all must read.
   "It was a case of riots for food, period. There is no other way to look
at it. People are angry and hungry for food. It is a very important signal
for all of us. Something must be done to address grinding poverty in this
land," he declared.