For Haiti's poor, 'economy' is just a word for scraping by U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 29, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Yeranie Flerissme is at ground zero of the Haitian economy.

Barefoot, marshaling her three children, she is climbing over piles of rubble and collecting used baby food bottles in a garbage dump that extends as far as the eye can see.

A day's work will yield her 50 cents, barely enough to buy a cupful of rice. But she is here, with thousands of others, prospecting for pennies in a mountain of trash.

"I must do this," she says. "I must do this for the children."

This is a small slice of the Haitian economy, a year into a United Nations embargo that has ground the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere into what amounts to a pile of junk.

Here the elite can dine on salmon mousse and lobster brochette in elegant French restaurants, while the masses eat beans and rice. Four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokees share potholed roadways with rusting 15-year-old Datsuns. There are mansions on perfectly manicured hillsides and tin shacks on dusty plots.

"I thought the worst part of New York was bad," said Army Pvt. 1st Class Allison Raynor, 20, of Rush City, Minn. "But I have never seen anything like this. Everything is broken."

A day in the life of the Haitian economy is like a walk through a giant flea market.

People will do anything for money, from collecting garbage to selling cigarettes one at a time to offering bits of tattered cloth.

Sugar cane vendors wander the streets in search of a crowd and a sale. Men hoist containers filled with cold soda. Women offer gum from straw trays.

The few stores that remain open are mostly empty.

Enter the Track Master electronics store in what is left of a dingy, cluttered downtown shopping district. Boxes of blank cassettes lie gathering dust. Cartons of radios are piled high. The fluorescent lights barely flicker on.

Benito Prato, the store's owner, is trying to sell 14-inch color television sets in a city where the electricity is on less than six hours a day.

There are few takers. The set that went for $300 before the embargo now sells for $600.

"We were already the poorest country, and now this embargo has turned us upside down," he said. "The economy is finished. This country has no infrastructure. There is no water in this country. There is no electricity. There is no nothing."

Once, Mr. Prato employed 15 people. Now he employs just three. The story is repeated from shop to shop, factory to factory.

"How can you have a country when nobody is working?" he asks. "How?"

Meet Charles Wilbert, a 28-year-old wearing a University of Kentucky T-shirt and a smile on his face. He used to sell water and charcoal on the streets. Now he is a money-changer, dealing with the ever-changing exchange rate. The American dollar has escalated 200 percent against the Haitian gourde in the last three years. In the past year, the rate has inflated 80 percent.

"You have to know the rate at all times," he said. "It can change within minutes. This isn't that bad a job. At least it is a job. But if I could find another job, I'd do it."

A job, any job, is coveted.

On one of the few construction sites operating in the city, 20 men earning $1 a day form a bucket brigade to pour concrete on a roof. Louis Minos, 36, stands barefoot in mud, mixes cement and makes $4 a day.

"I am lucky to have a job," he said. "But it is impossible to live on this money. I have two children to send to school and a home to pay for. I don't know how much longer I can go on like this."

Carline Jean Baptiste has a job along gasoline alley, a dusty, noxious place where hundreds of people line up and sell gas from two-gallon jugs. In a country where the gas stations have been turned into wastelands, this is where drivers line up to pay up to $15 a gallon.

"The gas makes you sick," she said. "It gives you spots on your arms. But what are you going to do? You must work. This is a hard way to make a living, but everything is hard now."

Rafael Hugo used to make soccer balls. But the plant where he earned $50 a month has long since shut down, and he is in the car business. He deals in used parts. Spark plugs go for $1 each. Rusting springs go for $3. Along the road, men are cannibalizing old Toyotas and Hondas. In a tiny shed next to his house, Mr. Hugo has axles, crankshafts, windows, doors, clutches and an engine.

"We'll take the engine apart and sell it off piece by piece," he said. "There are no spare parts in this country. We don't throw anything away."

There is still color and life at Marche Salomon, a cavernous food hall where meat cutters offer slabs of lamb and beef on stone, and women sit in wooden chairs above piles of potatoes and bananas.

There is plenty of food. But there are few shoppers.

"Well, it's misery here," said Leonne Monteau, a tiny 39-year-old woman who clutches a bag of rice. "We are all losing weight here. Children are crying for food."

But up the mountain in Petionville, there are plenty of shoppers at Le Super Marche du Grand Public. They are buying $5 jugs of Welch's Grape Juice and $6 boxes of Rice Krispies. This is where the upper-middle classes shop and mingle.

Outside the store is Serge Louis Jacques, a 23-year-old former plumber who is in a new line of work -- as a security guard who carries a loaded shotgun.

"This is not what I want to do," he said. "But it's a job."

For one day at least, he is outgunned. Six U.S. Army soldiers are on a shopping spree, buying $3 jugs of Kool-Aid and $5 boxes of Pringles potato chips. They are oblivious to the fact that eggs that cost 80 cents before the embargo now go for $2.20 a dozen.

"Up here is the upper class," said 1st Sgt. Winner Augustin, 40, who is originally from Haiti. "Down there, on the docks, in the garbage dump, you have the masses."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.