For many Haitians, dreams of democracy turn to disgust

Those who sacrificed to end a dictatorship sour on the government

January 21, 1999|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

BAYARA, Haiti -- The kicks to his head during 16 hours of interrogation left Verdier Eli deaf in one ear, suffering from blurred vision and dizziness. But it was a sacrifice he says he made proudly in 1990 for the sake of Haitian democracy.

But the 43-year-old peasant farmer says he is ashamed of the "mockery" Haiti's elected officials have made of the sacrifice he and thousands of others made to rid the country of a brutal military dictatorship.

Four years after 20,000 U.S. troops invaded Haiti to restore democratic rule, "everything is falling apart," Eli said.

Last week, President Rene Preval announced that he no longer would recognize the Haitian parliament's legitimacy, because its term expired without new elections being held.

He decreed that a new prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, would take office with or without parliament's approval, and that federal, provincial and local governments would, for the time being, be run by presidential appointees.

Members of parliament, which had refused to act on three earlier prime minister nominees, are refusing to leave their jobs, accusing Preval of invoking dictatorial powers.

Diplomats describe the impasse as a full-blown political crisis that could lead to the return of international sanctions against the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

But throughout the countryside, average Haitians such as Eli are reacting not with the kind of uproar that forced the nation's military dictators into exile in 1994, but rather with a mixture of pity and quiet disgust.

The current crisis resulted from 19 months of skirmishing between Preval and an opposition-led parliament over who would pick up the political mantle left by the nation's popular former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

For nearly half of the time that Preval has been in office since Aristide stepped down in 1995, Haiti has been without a prime minister.

Members of parliament have vowed to fight Preval's move, although the number showing up for work has declined steadily since Jan. 12, when they opened a new session with U.S. Ambassador Timothy Carney attending.

"Preval must back down. This action will not go unanswered by our sector," said Evans Paul, a former mayor of Port-au-Prince who is a leading opponent of the president and Aristide. "This amounts to a coup by Preval. We will respond."

As a result of the impasse, Haiti has been unable to use tens of millions of dollars in international aid. Federal and local budgets have been frozen, meaning projects to build roads, sewage systems and electrical grids have stalled.

The dreams that many Haitians once had of economic prosperity spurred by democratic rule have largely disappeared.

In Bayara, cash-strapped parents fund the public school. There is no electricity.

In Haiti's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, most streets are clogged with mud, garbage and sewage washed up from Hurricane Georges four months ago.

"The Haitian people are so disgusted," a U.S. official said, adding that parliament is getting most of the blame.

Despite attempts by the White House to mediate, neither side appears willing to compromise, U.S. officials say. Last week, four ranking Republican members of Congress who had supported White House policy toward Haiti wrote a letter urging President Clinton to take stronger action. Among the measures they recommended was halting the $110 million in U.S. aid that Haiti receives each year.

"If the friends of Haiti on Capitol Hill are questioning [Haiti's course], then maybe the leadership in Haiti should sit up and take notice," the U.S. official said.

A former top Preval government official said, "This is a country notorious for being weak and totally dependent on the Americans. But I'm not sure anything the international community does at this point will change anything."

Haitians say the impasse, and the economic suffering it is causing them, makes them question whether democratic government is the solution to Haiti's problems. In the 1996 parliamentary elections, less than 7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

"I am not ever going to vote again," said Mary Lou Designant, a street vendor and the sister of Eli. "What purpose did it serve for my brother to be beaten so much that he can no longer hear? The only thing we've gained is the right to talk to each other without fear."

Some speak nostalgically about the days when the dreaded Ton-Ton Macoutes, armed thugs paid by the dictatorship, used public beatings and assassinations to terrorize citizens into submission.

"Maybe what we need now are Macoutes with a conscience," said farmer Saint Armand Mathiew, 50. "Democracy is not good for us. It's strange, but back when the Macoutes were around, people respected each other."

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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