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COLUMN ONE

Mission Missing Its Mark

Many Haitians say the U.N. effort does little to make their streets safer or their economy stronger. One notable beneficiary: the rich.

January 09, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

LEOGANE, Haiti — A cloud of condensation billows out from the shipping container into the tropical morning air as Col. Henry Premanta Mihindu throws open the door. Inside, crates of Wenatchee Valley apples, crisp bell peppers and California carrots fill a cold storage unit the size of a train car.

Beside it, another container holds cases of U.S. beef, New Zealand lamb and Arkansas chicken parts. Except for a few rare herbs that grow only in their faraway homeland, cooks with the Sri Lankan peacekeepers can get everything from the United Nations' supply network that they need for their spicy native dishes.

Outside the cinderblock wall separating the peacekeepers' tidy base from a busy coastal roadway, Renette Thermitus hunches over a sputtering gas-bottle burner, stirring a dented pot of canned milk and coffee. Like the sack of rolls that she rose before dawn to bake, the tepid beverage has no takers.

"They never buy anything from us," said the 23-year-old single mother, nodding her head to indicate the base housing hundreds of soldiers here in the poorest country in the hemisphere.

A seaside town of a few thousand with its own food shops and produce markets, Leogane had expected to benefit from being host to one of the biggest contingents of foreign soldiers scattered across this violence-racked country.

But the Sri Lankan camp, like all others that make up the 7,300-strong U.N. military deployment in Haiti, is as self-contained as a spaceship.

The staggering cost of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, eclipses Haiti's entire $380-million annual national budget. That price tag, and the peacekeepers' interpretation of their mandate as assistants to fledgling Haitian police rather than primary law enforcers, grates on the purported beneficiaries.

"What I don't like about them is that they are at ease. They don't need anything. They eat well. They sleep well. They play cricket. It's like they're here on vacation," said Fedner Sanon, an unemployed teacher. "That's why we call them TOURISTAH."

Although the troops are authorized by the U.N. Security Council to intervene with force to quell violence, their commanders have chosen to interpret the mandate in a minimalist fashion. The U.N. has specifically charged MINUSTAH with collecting illegal weapons, but throughout the mission's 19-month duration, those in charge have delegated the job to Haitians. And because the poorly armed Haitian national police are no match for the powerful gang leaders, neither they nor the foreign peacekeepers spend much time in the most dangerous areas.

The nearly 1,900 U.N. police officers and 600 civilian administrators dispatched to Haiti spend more here than the soldiers, renting apartments, filling hotels and frequenting restaurants, accounting for the biggest local benefit from a mission that will cost the world body half a billion dollars this year. About $13 million of that made its way to Haitian landlords and caterers, according to a study by the Peace Dividend Trust, a U.N.-contracted agency charged with investigating ways to cut mission costs and enhance spending in host countries.

The agency's director, Scott Gilmore, concedes that the study confirmed what relief workers had long suspected: The wealthy benefit most from the U.N. presence.

"The entrepreneurial classes in the city centers almost always are the ones to first enjoy this dividend," he said. "But that's not all a bad thing. They are also the ones who can pump it back into the economy by creating new jobs."

In Petionville, the elite hilltop suburb overlooking Port-au-Prince that is home to the wealthy clique of a few hundred families that controls 90% of the economy of Haiti, real estate agents and restaurateurs are cashing in.

"The rich are getting richer, but that has always been the situation here," said Steve McIntosh, a 30-year-old who left his banking job to tap into a rental boom that has seen owners in the exclusive areas charge extortionate prices. As he flitted about an elegant new office with French windows and wrought-iron balconies, he observed somewhat sheepishly, "I've made a good chunk of money myself."

At Cafe Albert, a candlelit garden eatery so popular with U.N. officials that both sides of the street are flanked nightly with white SUVs bearing the world body's markings, the Belgian owner explains that the half a dozen waitresses on hand weren't hired because of the U.N. patronage so much as sustained by it after business disappeared in the chaotic months before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled an armed rebellion in February 2004.

"We get both the civilian administrators and the officers, and their presence gives people confidence, especially the businesspeople who are worried about all the kidnapping," Jean-Pierre Buelinckx observed as he looked over the convivial crowd with satisfaction. "We are happy to see them."

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