An abandoned U. S. adventure

Haiti : The dream that the Western Hemisphere's poorest country would be rebuilt with international help has almost died, as conditions continue to worsen.

November 18, 2001|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

ST. MARC, Haiti -- Rodrigue Mortel rose from his peasant beginnings to get an education, thanks largely to the determination of his mother, and went on to a distinguished medical career in the United States.

He didn't turn his back on his native land. Last month, a school he built for the poor of St. Marc, the city where he was born, opened with 63 kindergartners.

Gerard Dormevil grew up in a mountainside village 2 1/2 hours north of St. Marc, one of eight children of a peasant farmer. Unlike many of his countrymen, he got an education, was ordained a priest and recently managed to bring an irrigation project to his native village.

The work of these men, substantial as it is, represents what Mortel calls "a drop in the bucket" for this desperately poor country, the biggest basket case of the Western Hemisphere.

Drops in the bucket like these are all that's left of a forgotten dream to rebuild Haiti with billions of dollars from the United States and the international community.

Seven years after a U.S.-led armed force restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after his ouster in a 1991 military coup, Haiti is sinking deeper into a political and economic morass.

Aristide left office in 1995 when his term expired. Now, he's president again, having won a disputed election last year. The government is paralyzed over that balloting and a contentious election of legislators. The latest Organization of American States effort to broker an agreement between Aristide's Lavalas Family Party and a 15-party opposition coalition collapsed last month.

Haiti can't balance the budget, inflation is rising, foreign aid is off, the government is paying 30 percent interest on bonds and the International Monetary Fund is demanding that Haiti shape up.

Corruption is endemic.

Lawrence Pezzullo lays the blame for political paralysis squarely on Aristide -- and on the failure of the Clinton administration to force Aristide to agree to a government of reconciliation before restoring him to power in 1994.

"The military was ready to change," says Pezzullo, a Baltimorean who was the Clinton administration's special adviser on Haiti from March 1993 to April 1994. "The private sector, which hated Aristide, was willing to play a reasonable role. The opposition parties were ready to play a reasonable role. The world community was ready to go in with massive help."

Administration officials talked of a billion dollars over five years.

Aristide resisted compromise and lobbied Congress, particularly the Black Caucus, for support.

"The Clinton administration, which tried to do the right thing, just didn't have the stomach to deal with this," says Pezzullo. So, it sent 20,000 soldiers to Haiti to unseat the coup and restore Aristide without agreement of all parties on a government.

"Haiti is in a terrible mess," Pezzullo says. "Now they've got a dictatorship which has a patina of democracy. ... It's a fraud, and there's no power on Earth that's going to do anything about it. We're not going to do anything about it."

The failure is a sobering lesson for the Bush administration as it faces a difficult task in Afghanistan, seeking replacement of the Taliban with a broad-based government in a land that is more a collection of tribal fiefdoms than a nation.

"The centerpiece of any country, whether Afghanistan or any country in trouble, is to try to build a political base," Pezzullo says. "You've got to have reconciliation internally. Otherwise, especially in cases like Haiti, where you've had one despot after another controlling executive power and dominating, there's a repetition of the past.

"What you have now in Aristide is just that. ... Give him power and he abuses it. He dominates everything. ... Forget the poor. Forget anything else. Forget anything resembling internal growth."

Marc Bazin, a prime minister during the military dictatorship and now minister of planning in the Aristide government, fears the downward spiral will lead to a boat exodus toward Florida like one that preceded the U.S. intervention in 1994.

There is talk of a coup as Aristide's support weakens. A general strike by the political opposition, accompanied by some violence, virtually shut down the nation's second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, last week while small demonstrations have occurred elsewhere.

All this in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where life expectancy is 47 1/2 for men and 51 for women; where half the people older than 15 are illiterate, and 80 percent of them live in abject poverty; where the unemployment rate is 70 percent.

Safe water is a luxury enjoyed by less than half the population. Only a quarter of the people have access to adequate sanitation.

Health care is abysmal. In Gonaives, two hours north of St. Marc, Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity run a medical clinic. On a hot August day, 750 people were lined up for treatment when it opened.

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