Impoverishment so vast, potential is all that's left U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

October 01, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- What can you say about orphans in a society that can't even adequately feed the children who have parents?

They are the most wrenching of many symbols of need in a country that needs just about everything.

At the Orphanage of the Good Shepherd in the slum Cite Soleil, thelittle girls sleep on the concrete floor, and the boys sleep two to a bunk in a bedroom where an open drain runs across the floor.

In a way, they are the lucky ones. They have shelter and food in a country where many children have neither. The other day they were having just one meal because the looting of aid supplies forced the U.S. Agency for International Development to halt its deliveries of food.

Three-year-old twins Marie Denise and Jean Denis Sainvil have lived with their mother, Denise Compere, 34, at the orphanage since their father, Westley, died three years ago of a fever.

"We might all be dead if we hadn't come here," said Ms. Compere, who cooks and cleans at the Spartan orphanage in return for shelter. She was cooking green peas and bulgur wheat from supplies the orphanage receives from the Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based aid organization.

In another part of town, Ada Porter, 66, of Pittsburgh was caring for 33 girls at an orphanage she opened in 1984, which also is supplied by the Catholic Relief Services and by the Greater Works Outreach Church of Pittsburgh.

"When we got some of the girls, they were so sick, covered in sores, that it took a lot of nursing," she said. "Many are malnourished."

Haiti has what the aid technicians clinically call a "food deficit." This leaves an astonishing 40 percent of the 6 million population malnourished.

Its health indicators, from birth weight to life expectancy, are abysmal, while 97 percent of its public health spending goes to salaries.

Overall, the government devotes 75 percent of its outlay to paying bureaucrats, a system of patronage and inefficiency run amok.

Only 50 percent of Haitian children attend school, and 75 percent of its population is illiterate.

If Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest nation, was a basket case before the coup, it has been on its deathbed since the United States-led international economic embargo.

When the gasoline stops flowing, the smugglers charge more. When the price goes up, farmers can't afford to take their produce to market; fishermen can't afford to put their boats to sea; companies, deprived of other raw products as well as gas, can't afford to employ workers.

The price of gas has multiplied by a factor of more than 10, increasing from $1.30 cents a gallon before the embargo to almost $15 a gallon today. The human price is more difficult to calculate precisely, but multiply it has.

One fact: Before the embargo, the Catholic Relief Services fed 188,000 Haitians daily; today it is feeding 400,000.

"These are people who have been brought into the problem," said Gregory Hofknecht, Haiti representative of the Catholic Relief Services and a veteran of relief operations in the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia.

"The people most susceptible to need now are the urban dwellers, who don't have alternatives for finding food or income. People in the country have an agricultural foundation, and they have more opportunities available to them to get by."

Mr. Hofknecht expressed amazement at how the people of Cambodia were able to survive sheer horror, how the residents of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, came through the intense shelling and deprivation of their city.

"Now look at the Haitians," he said. "How do they survive, despite all the difficulties? It's the survival instinct, the desire to survive. That's what I call potential."

Haiti, given the state it is in today, starts with little else but potential. You have to be a supreme optimist to see hope here.

The human hardship is entwined with economic disaster. This is a country in a credit crisis. It owes $80 million, and must repay it before the lenders a world away at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank will give it any more.

The Clinton administration has promised to pay $25 million of the debt, and other countries are expected to pick up the balance. Once the military dictatorship is replaced with democracy, $550 million in international aid will start to roll into Haiti.

What is needed, apart from the basics of food, medicine, shelter? Start anywhere. The power system is almost defunct, the result of corruption, inefficiency, neglect. The road system is crumbling. The sewage system is out of control. The communications system is all but silent.

The military coup Sept. 30, 1991, cost this country an estimated $54 million in short-term development projects, including highways, port modernization and solid waste sewage treatment.

Instead of getting better, things have gotten steadily worse.

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