'We are no longer a modern civilization': building a country from the bottom up THE STRUGGLE IN HAITI

September 05, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

LAFFITEAU, Haiti -- The mammoth silo slouches forlornly by the seaside, its concrete foundation crumbling to dust, its machinery frozen by rust, its guts ripped out by vandals, its floors knee-deep in goat droppings. It is a near-perfect symbol for the state of the Haitian economy.

The structure was once the pride of Haiti -- a mill owned and operated by the government that was to provide this poor Caribbean country with all the flour it needed. But after years of mismanagement, waste, misuse and, finally, an international economic embargo, the mill is a useless hulk.

It is much the same with the country's entire economic structure. The roads and piers, the telephone, water and electric systems, the factories all are a shambles.

Entire sections of the country are practically unreachable by land. Major cities are without electricity, water and communications.

The consequence is a population reduced to begging or, in many cases, stealing to survive.

"We are no longer a modern civilization," said a wealthy merchandiser in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. "Hell, we're not any kind of civilized."

This primeval state is what faces the new government appointed by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as he prepares for his Oct. 30 return from two years of forced exile.

It also confronts the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States and the rest of the international community that during those two years have squeezed the life out of what already was the Western Hemisphere's most pathetic economy.

According to one diplomat's estimate -- one seen as optimistic by some Haitian economists -- the cost for building an effective economy here will run into the tens of billions of dollars, with $1 billion in international aid needed just to get Haiti through the next 12 months.

A doubting Haitian added: "If it can be done at all, it will have to be planned, carried out and paid for by the international community."

That the world should assume this responsibility springs from the ashes of an international intervention policy designed to punish Haiti's traditional military and civilian elite by crushing their economic base.

"I admit this wasn't much of an economy to start with," a diplomat said. "But when we purposely wrecked what there was, we assumed the responsibility of rebuilding."

After Father Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest and the country's first democratically elected president, was chased from the country in September 1991 by a military coup, the OAS -- which includes the United States -- imposed an economic embargo.

When that proved largely ineffective and the Haitian military refused to negotiate Father Aristide's return, last June 23 the United Nations ordered a total worldwide boycott, particularly on petroleum.

That worked. The army coup leaders have agreed to resign by mid-October, and pro-Aristide businessman Robert Malval took

over Monday as prime minister.

The United States and Canada have promised to immediately release about $30 million in emergency aid, and other countries have promised lesser amounts.

The United Nations is coordinating a development program that theoretically totals nearly $1 billion. But much of that money remains unappropriated by contributing countries and, in any case, covers such non-economic matters as police and military training.

"Some experts are calling on the United States to provide from $350 million to $500 million," one international development expert said. "But I'm told there is little chance that the Clinton administration can get that kind of money out of Congress this year."

Even if political stability can be maintained and the economy cranked up, there is little that Haiti, with its 7 million poor, illiterate and untrained people, can offer in markets, materials or services.

What had been the country's most promising industry before the coup, assembly plants that had transformed imported raw materials into finished products for consumption overseas, was nearly wiped out by the embargo.

VTC Building a new infrastructure is the most daunting, if not an impossible, task.

Roads have not been maintained for years. Pavement has given way to axle-breaking potholes, which in turn have given way to nearly impassable stretches of boulders and chasms.

The existing stock of vehicles, always in poor condition and few in number, was devastated by the embargo on fuel and spare parts. "The only certain form of transportation is to go by foot," said one Haitian businessman.

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