PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The first campaign by Haiti's rich, conservative business families to confront President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's restored government is not a battle of guns, but of electricity, bank accounts, oil tanks and the country's economic future.
Leading the struggle are the Mevses and the Brandts, two wealthy families which opposed Aristide and supported the military regime that overthrew the priest-turned-president and his democratically elected government in 1991, just seven months after he took office.
The current struggle pits the rich businessmen, who have been described by U.S. officials as the MREs--morally repugnant elite--against Leslie Delatour, 47, an international economist named by Aristide as governor of Haiti's Central Bank.
Delatour, a onetime finance minister and free-market advocate, has long opposed the monopolistic practices and privileged status of the moguls. So beyond policy disputes, there is a strong element of personal animosity in the current faceoff.
"It is a morality play," an American diplomat said, "with one side, the hard-line, old families, driving to maintain privilege, complete with a whiff of corruption."
To Delatour, the confrontation is a titanic struggle. And for all its prosaic financial elements, it will determine whether Aristide establishes a truly representative system or merely a democratic shell with little change in the old, near-feudal system of centralized wealth for a few at the expense of the many.
"If they win," Delatour said in an interview in the shabby, darkened offices of the Central Bank, "everything will go on as before, or worse since they will feel reinforced."
The initial battle with the Mevs family centers on its plan to lease to the government a barge to generate electricity, something this power-starved country desperately needs. The Mevses have offered an eight-year deal at a cost to the government of up to $13 million a year. On the surface, the deal has important benefits for Haiti. The barge could begin service in three weeks and restore to Port-au-Prince round-the-clock power, something it has not had since the coup more than three years ago.
When American troops arrived in September to bring down the military junta and restore Aristide, they also temporarily restored a percentage of Haiti's electrical power, but the government has been unable to maintain the system, and output stands at less than 50% of the level the Americans had achieved. Making matters worse, utility experts say it will be March at the earliest before broken generators can be repaired and seasonal rains fill hydroelectric dams.
But the barge proposal holds problems for Delatour. First is what diplomats describe as the sweetheart nature of the deal.
The bid was announced only once, in the back pages of one newspaper. Foreign utility experts say the Mevses are charging three or more times what the deal should cost. More important is the financing and duration of the proposal and the implications for Delatour's ambitious plans to privatize EDH, the national energy company.
"The terms are too long for a bankrupt and poorly managed enterprise," said a diplomat familiar with the deal. "Besides, the government has no money now, and it would have to pay the Mevses out of international aid that otherwise could directly benefit development programs."
United Nations' experts say that international development and lending institutions would likely withdraw loans and grants because the deal would result in deficit government spending and increased inflation.
A second front of the war between Delatour and the Mevses concerns a contract signed by the family and the military government to build an oil storage facility to store fuel reserves. Delatour wants to cancel the October, 1993, contract, arguing that it is unnecessary and wildly imprudent, not to mention that the Mevses cannot account for 159,000 gallons of fuel oil, about 5% of the total, already stored.
When the shortage was first discovered, the Mevs family blamed it on goats, saying the animals must have eaten through seals on the tanks. Other sources say the military took the fuel and sold it on the then-flourishing black market. The Mevses now say they have no idea what happened--and claim that it is not their problem, anyway.
The tank facility deal is being financed by the Central Bank over five years at a total cost of about $20 million.
Meanwhile, diplomatic sources say, the Mevses are reported to be using the contract to guarantee loans they obtained from New York banks.
If the contract is abrogated, the Mevses will be forced to restructure those loans at higher interest rates, diplomats said.
"There are all sorts of things wrong with the contract," one foreign economist said, "and it makes no sense anyway since Haiti can get the fuel elsewhere and doesn't need to hold strategic reserves.