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Road to Democracy in Haiti Hits an Impasse

Progress is stymied by a political stalemate and reduced foreign aid. Critics blame President Aristide and his chokehold on power.

June 26, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- It's known to most Haitians as the American Highway, but Route Neuf might better be called the Road Not Taken.

Its few miles of pavement are cratered and plagued by bandits, and the asphalt peters out altogether as the road evaporates before it reaches Cite Soleil, a slum where tens of thousands of people live in squalor.

Construction of what was supposed to be a vital modern link began after Washington's 1994 military intervention and ended two years later along with other efforts to build democracy in this, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Route Neuf, or New Road in Creole, has become a symbol of the abandoned U.S. effort to wrest Haiti from 200 years of despotism and dashed expectations.

"I'm not going to sit here and say that we didn't make mistakes," said U.S. Ambassador Brian Dean Curran, a Clinton appointee who will be replaced next month. "But part of it is that Haiti is a very difficult place to understand. Not everything flowed naturally from that restoration of constitutional democracy."

Paralyzed by political stalemate and reduced foreign aid, Haiti has fallen even further behind its Latin American neighbors in the eight years since exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was reinstalled with U.S. help. Per capita income has been halved. Malnutrition afflicts two-thirds of the 8.3 million people, of whom 55% are illiterate. The national currency, the gourde, has lost half its value and foreign investment has disappeared, even with a labor force eager to work for sweatshop wages.

Critics put the blame for Haiti's worsening condition on Aristide and his chokehold on power. A former priest, Aristide mobilized the poorest of the poor against the previous dictatorship, but his current opponents describe him as Machiavellian and a master at exploiting Haitian racial and economic resentment.

"The United States will have to come back to Haiti to get rid of Aristide, because they are the ones who brought him here," said Maurice Lafortune, head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "They thought they were bringing democracy to Haiti, but they were wrong and they, too, realize that now."

With Washington's diplomatic energies concentrated on Iraq and the Middle East, Haiti and Latin America in general have fallen off the U.S. foreign policy map, complain both the Haitian government and its opponents. But the increasing number of Haitian refugees taking to the seas may force a change, especially as the U.S. elections approach. Haitian Americans and the Congressional Black Caucus have accused the Bush administration of racism in its treatment of asylum-seekers from Haiti, who are returned without hearings. Cubans, by contrast, are allowed to stay if they reach U.S. soil.

"Haiti is not a communist country and it's not a terrorism threat to the United States," said biology professor Micha Gaillard, an activist with the opposition movement Democratic Convergence. "Our only hope is to somehow become a nuisance."

Opposition politicians say they have to do more than pose a threat of diplomatic annoyance.

"Unless we in Haiti are able to show a certain level of unity and resolve, this crisis will last quite a while longer," said Andre Apaid. He is a businessman from one of the country's most powerful families and a key supporter of the Civil Society, a coalition of 184 professional, religious and social groups opposed to Aristide. Referring to the wealthy elite, intellectuals, the Catholic Church hierarchy, labor and human rights organizations, he noted that "people who used to be mad at each other are talking now."

Such advocates saw a glimmer of renewed U.S. interest in Haiti this month when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, meeting with counterparts from the Organization of American States at a summit in Chile called on Aristide to clear the way for elections.

Powell gave Aristide until Sept. 30 to clean up the security forces so that opposition parties can campaign without fear of the chimeres, the armed gangs who take their name from mythical fire-breathing monsters and who terrorize those seen as a threat to Aristide's rule. Many of the thugs are holdovers from the Tontons Macoutes, the terror squad that helped keep the Duvalier dictatorship in power for 29 years before Aristide.

No one expects a vote even as soon as next year. Aristide's Lavalas Family Party activists blame the opposition for holding up new elections with what they consider exaggerated claims that insecurity prevents fair campaigning. Lavalas dismissed as wrong, or irrelevant, reports that thugs within the national police force have beaten opponents, shot into crowds at rallies and killed independent journalists.

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