'Problems are so difficult we leave them to God' Haiti's plight will long outlive current crisis

October 31, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Kesnel Gustave pulls a visitor inside his tin shack home, unfolds a small photo of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and whispers that he hopes Father Aristide will return soon.

"But I hope he comes with an army of angels," Mr. Gustave says of the ousted president who is also a Roman Catholic priest. "Freedom is good, but food for my children would be better."

He shows a visitor a bag of beans that he and his two children have to live on for the next week. He has no clean water.

In front of his shack, he points to a stream of smelly black mud. And in back, he shows the neighborhood dump: mounds of garbage and human waste covered with flies.

"To change my life," he said, "I need more than Aristide. I need a miracle."

For the overwhelming majority of the people of Haiti, life is wretched now. And it will be wretched even if Father Aristide returns.

This is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. For most of its history, it has been governed by leaders who catered to the demands of a small elite, while most Haitians were left largely to fend for themselves.

Father Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected leader, offered many poor people their first real hope that the government might begin to provide basic services.

He was ousted in a violent coup two years ago. The United Nations reimposed an arms and fuel embargo against the country Oct. 18 in hopes of enforcing an agreement that would have permitted Father Aristide to return yesterday and that would have retired military leaders involved in the coup.

The day of his return is now uncertain as the military leaders up the ante for their resignations and Mr. Aristide becomes increasingly inflexible. But many people speak of that day with mystical anticipation.

Mr. Gustave and his neighbors promise to celebrate. For the first time in years, they will dance and chant in the streets all night long.

But after that one drunken night, Mr. Gustave says, he will wake up to the same plate of beans for breakfast. And as the hot sun makes his tin hut unbearable, he will be able only to dream about a tall glass of drinkable ice water.

When asked what is needed to lift this country out of its vicious poverty, he and others look to the sky.

"We can't solve the problems really," said Eleanor Turnbull, a Baptist missionary who has worked in Haiti for close to 50 years. "We can only offer hope. The problems are so difficult that we leave them to God."

Daunting statistics

The statistics are daunting. Some 75 percent of the people are unemployed. Parents support their children with $1 a day that they earn by doing odd jobs or begging.

Government schools are not free, and so most parents cannot afford to send their children to learn to read and write. Sixty-five percent of the people are illiterate.

About 100 children out of 1,000 die before they turn 5, mostly from diseases related to malnutrition or unsanitary living conditions. And the life expectancy for men is 54.

"This is a nation where the basic needs of the people are not met," said Marie-Michele Rey, who serves in the Cabinet of interim Premier Robert Malval. "This is a nation whose children are not fed or educated; where people do not have work."

65% to be without water

In a speech to the United Nations Thursday, Father Aristide said that without help before the year 2000, 65 percent of the urban population of Haiti will have no access to clean water. And he said 60 percent of the children will not be vaccinated against disease.

Forests, once 20 percent of the country, will disappear, torn up for fuel, leaving topsoil to run off into the ocean.

And as the topsoil floats out to sea, he said, so will many Haitian people. As they have done for decades, they will continue to risk their lives and try to escape the poverty on unseaworthy boats headed toward the United States.

That is an essential motivation for U.S. policy toward Haiti. Apart from the desire to restore democracy, Washington wants the boatloads of refugees to stop sailing for America.

"People will keep going," said Father Lawrence Bohnen. "They have more hope out on the water than they have in this country."

A U.N. embargo against Haiti, aimed at starving the military of gas and weapons, inevitably has had more serious impact on the poor.

Gas stations around the capital were closed last week because fuel companies refused to release supplies of gasoline held in storage tanks. There were exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions.

Gun, gas and go

One afternoon, military officers converged on an Esso station on John Brown Avenue, a main street leading from downtown to the wealthy mountain community of Petionville. One officer, with three stars on the shoulder of his uniform, walked inside and told an attendant to call the owner.

"We want gas," he grunted.

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