Chasm of resentment separates rich and poor in uneasy Haiti

November 08, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- This place high on a mountainside overlooking Port-au-Prince is one of the few communities shared by Haiti's rich and poor. Still, they hardly meet.

Beautiful mansions dominate the view, while ramshackle huts cling to the sides of the cliffs below. Maseratis and BMWs race through crowded, smelly street markets. Fancy restaurants and modern supermarkets share the same blocks with vendors selling stale food on the sidewalks.

For fun, people like Katie, an interior decorator, spend evenings with friends at a neighborhood casino. They feed coins worth about 50 cents into poker machines, and high rollers lose $100 in a game of blackjack.

Daniel Joseph, an unemployed father of two, spends his nights in a shack with no electricity or running water, worrying about how he will put food on the table each day and praying that his children stay healthy because he doesn't have even $1 in his pocket for medicine.

Like most of her rich friends, Katie won't give her full name. They are afraid of retribution. The poor have little left to lose.

There are no social exchanges between people like Katie and Mr. Joseph, only encounters tinged with fear and misunderstanding. Neither one trusts the other. This division is the root of Haiti's current political crisis.

"You have to be careful with them," Katie whispers, referring to the poor. "They don't want to share this country with us. They want it all, and they will burn it down or kill us to get it."

"When you are poor, you cannot sit in the same place as the rich," Mr. Joseph says. "You cannot even ask the rich for help. They hate the poor. They don't need me. Their money can do everything for them."

For generations, this country has been sharply split between the haves and the have-nots.

For the overwhelming majority of people, Haiti is hell. Some 80 percent of Haitians are unemployed, with most people earning about $1 a day doing odd jobs. Even more people are illiterate, and one child out of 10 dies before turning 5 from illnesses that could be cured if they had appropriate medical care.

But then, there are those who see Haiti as a paradise. About 4 percent of the people control 80 percent of Haiti's wealth, operating businesses ranging from textile plants to banks to publishing companies and posh hotels.

They don't depend on Haiti's dilapidated infrastructure. They tend to shop and visit doctors in Miami, an hour's flight away. They send their children to well-equipped private elementary schools and then to foreign universities. They enjoy fresh seafood and the world's smoothest rum. Their streets are clean of the garbage and stench of the slums. Many of them do not know what kinds of lives people live at the bottom of the mountain.

'All were happy'

"Poor people here do not live as bad as you think," Katie says, sitting next to her "lucky" poker machine so that no one else takes her place. "I bet they don't live any worse than people in Brooklyn."

"Haitians are peaceful people," says the owner of a popular Petionville restaurant. "All people here were happy. The poor people were happy with their jobs. It was paradise, until one politician came in and tried to turn the poor against us."

That politician was a frail Salesian priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He ignited hope among the poor when he became Haiti's first democratically elected president in 1991. Millions of people who never voted, because they were too afraid to express an opinion, showed up at the polls to secure his victory.

But Father Aristide was ousted in a bloody coup two years ago and has lived in exile since then. The military refuses to surrender to international pressure to return control of the government to Father Aristide and is being held responsible for the assassination of thousands of people since it seized power.

"This is a struggle of class," said Roger Petit-Frere, a historian and political analyst at the University of Haiti. "It is a struggle for dignity for the poor. The rich don't want to give it to them."

"If [the rich] don't change their ways, there will be an explosion whether Aristide comes back or not," says Father Lawrence Bohnen, who operates schools in the slums of Port-au-Prince. "And that's what the bourgeoisie deserves."

Vengeance is what the wealthy say they fear most. They assert that they generously support the poor by creating jobs and donating money to charity. Despite the claims by human rights advocates and historians around the world, they say the rich and poor lived harmoniously until Father Aristide "excited them."

"He was a priest, so I thought he might be a man of peace," said the owner of one of Petionville's most elegant hotels. "But then I found he was cut from the same cloth as David Koresh. He excited the poor people and made them think we are the reason their lives are difficult."

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