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After Weeks of Turmoil, Haiti Slowly Returns to Normal

Accepting poverty and squalor as facts of life, residents are just glad the gunfire has stopped.

March 23, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Life is slowly creeping back to normal after weeks of violent turmoil in this Caribbean capital.

This is normal in the teeming slum of Cite Soleil: heaps of refuse in the street. Open gullies for sewers. Ramshackle homes built from a flimsy patchwork of metal and plywood.

This is normal for Maryse Blain Bruno: hawking drinking glasses and teacups on the sidewalk. Fending off loan collectors from the bank. Struggling to feed three children on her own, her husband killed by thugs 2 1/2 years ago.

It is a measure of just how bad things have gotten in Haiti, just how abject the misery has become, that "normal" here is a harsh reality of unrelenting poverty and squalor -- and that residents long to return to it.

A new set of leaders has taken over the government after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile Feb. 29 by an armed revolt. Prime Minister Gerard Latortue installed a Cabinet on Wednesday in an attempt to reconcile warring factions and impose some order on a society reeling from protests, looting and violent death.

All that many Haitians ask for now is a semblance of stability, the freedom to get on with their lives -- as hard and, in many cases, short as they are. For many, progress has come down to living without the added peril of flying bullets or roving gangs that punish people for expressing a contrary political opinion.

"I've always had to fight to eat, and that will remain the same. But at least I can speak out," said Bruno, 40, who lives in Port-au-Prince's depressed Bas Peu de Choses neighborhood. "As long as there's security, things are good."

That's both a modest ambition and a tall order in a land that has witnessed coup after coup and strongman after strongman in its 200-year history as the world's first independent black nation.

The new government, billed as a coalition of national unity, is counting on its team of technocrats to set aside divisive ideology and emphasize competence in rebuilding ravaged institutions and putting the state back on its feet. Much of the machinery of government and the economy lie in ruins, from a battered police force to pillaged industrial parks.

At least in the near term, Haiti's efforts to restore public order will rely heavily on international troops, the majority of them from the U.S. A durable peace, however, could prove elusive given the number of guns in circulation, many of them in the hands of street toughs willing to push their political views with violence.

Only after a dependable calm has returned will many residents allow themselves something more extravagant than mere survival: hope.

Rosemene Louis indulged in it a dozen years ago, when Aristide was first elected on a wave of popular support as a fierce champion of the downtrodden in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

This is a place where life expectancy is lower than in Sudan, only half the population can read or write, diseases like typhoid and malaria are rampant, and hunger rates are topped only by those of Somalia and Afghanistan, according to the United Nations.

Haitians counted on Aristide to make things better. But for many, they grew worse.

Ten years ago, a small packet of rice cost about 25 cents. Now it's twice that, which many can't afford. The price of cooking oil has gone up as well.

With industry laid to waste, thousands of people are out of work, including Louis' husband.

"At that time, I had hope. But I don't now," said Louis, an ample 32-year-old swathed in a dress the color of the tropical sky. "Sometimes you feel like screaming, things are so hard.... We can't live this way anymore."

Louis was peddling yucca crackers on a street corner just a few steps from her home. Home for Louis, her husband and their seven children is a dark two-room concrete hut in Cite Soleil, the biggest slum in Port-au-Prince, acre upon acre of degradation and want.

Pockets of support for Aristide are still strong in neighborhoods like this, not just among the illiterate thugs he armed and ordered to crush his perceived enemies, but also among some regular folk who still cling to him as their advocate.

In interviews since his ouster, Aristide, a fiery former priest who preached a theology of liberation, said he remained the defender of the masses. He said his administration fostered important educational and social projects in Haiti, such as a new medical school in Port-au-Prince whose campus is now being used as headquarters to the international troops.

But even in places where the priest-turned-president still commands some loyalty -- slums like Cite Soleil and Bel Air, a shantytown rising above the city's pink-and-white Catholic cathedral -- grinding poverty and neglect are unexorcised demons.

Electricity is scarce; the lightbulb in Louis' anteroom burns for about an hour a day. Rotting garbage gets dumped and set ablaze in the narrow, unpaved streets. Flies alight on everything and everyone.

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