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Haiti Without Duvalier Stays Rooted in Despair

October 18, 1987|Cecilia Rodriguez | Cecilia Rodriguez is West Coast correspondent for El Tiempo of Bogota, Colombia.

STANFORD — As they cruise the French Riviera in a $120,000 Ferrari Testarossa, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and his wife, Michele, must look back with some feeling for their years of glory when he was president of Haiti. Beyond a loss of political power, however, the pair are in no financial pain: Fortune Magazine this month set the deposed couple's wealth, wrung from their impoverished homeland, at more than $1 billion.

Along the coast of their native isle, fronting on the turquoise Caribbean, thousands of people huddle in shacks of wood and mud in the worst living conditions in the Western Hemisphere.

Two years ago, through a series of bloody riots, those people ended 29 years of the Duvalier reign. But the jubilation that followed the collapse of the second Duvalier tyrant flowered for barely a day. In a country where it seemed the only way to go was up, Haitians have fallen yet deeper into despair.

Last Tuesday, police in the capital of Port-au-Prince shot and killed a presidential candidate, Yves Volel, as he delivered a speech on human rights, standing on the steps of police headquarters. Another presidential candidate, Louis Eugene Athis, was hacked to death and set on fire in August by a crowd with machetes in a town south of the capital. Such is the atmosphere, weeks before the Nov. 29 presidential election.

Chaos, violence, hunger, repression and the most absolute lack of resources imaginable remain characteristic of daily life in Haiti. Looking at recent events, it appears not only that economic and social development have been paralyzed, but reversed to the point of anarchy. Desperation among the agonizingly poor drives them to commit atrocities that horrify even the most hardened Haiti observer.

The provisional junta that replaced Duvalier has done nothing to improve the Haitian's lot. Lacking public credibility, the government resorts to repression and murder to subdue a population that since June has returned to the streets demanding the ouster of Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy and the other two members of the junta. The victims of the recent political violence number more than 500.

In July, at least 250 peasants seeking land reform in an arid northwest province were killed in a machete attack. In the hills above the village of Jean Ravel, peasants were ambushed by another group--themselves poor peasants but in the employ of local landlords.

Jean Ravel, which has neither telephone nor telegraph service, is five hours from the nearest town. In a country of isolated villages--where people care little for statistics and estimates--it becomes next to impossible to confirm rumors. Reports of the Jean Ravel massacre, for example, only reached Port-au-Prince three days after the fact.

In any case, it is officially accepted that 60% of the people are unemployed, more than 80% illiterate and 85% underfed and undernourished.

Haiti has not always been as it is in these sad days, but its current crisis has been more than a century in the making. Before winning its freedom in 1804, Haiti was one of the richest colonies in the world. The island was invaded first by Spain, then by English buccaneers and finally by the French who converted Haiti into a prosperous agriculture center worked by slaves. It became an example for the rest of the continent as the second colonial possession--after the United States--to win independence.

But the Haitian revolution freed the slaves form their chains only to place them under the rule of a series of megalomaniacs and a small elite. From the turn of the century, the situation has steadily deteriorated, especially since July, 1915, when U.S. Marines invaded the island. They were there to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and supposedly protect the island from the threat of communism. The occupation lasted until 1934, but the United States retained direct fiscal control until 1947. The weakened economy then collapsed.

Haiti's natural fertility made it an agricultural emporium, but through overplanting of the soil, deforestation and relentless hurricanes, the lush landscape was eroded.

From its earliest days of independence, Haiti was a paradise for tourists. Its endless white beaches, ubiquitous palms and coconuts and the spectacular Caribbean combined with the peoples' cultural richness to draw visitors hungry for calm.

Today there are no more tourists in Haiti. Its convoluted political life, the misery and abuses of human rights have ended its fascination for the outside world.

Haiti once was the only authentic black culture outside Africa. Its people managed to maintain a vibrant authentic tradition despite rampant misery and injustice. One supernatural factor unites Haiti's complex isolation and unique culture--the practice of voodoo. Ninety percent of the population followed an intricate fusion of beliefs, rich mythology, a pantheon of spirits and distinct moral and social codes brought by slave ships from West Africa and transmitted for generations.

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