Originally: Haiti: Paralyzed and punished by floundering and corrupt leadership

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in an attempt to help rebuild this troubled nation, Haiti once again is spiraling toward collapse.

Its political culture is mired in dissension, distrust and violence, with signs that the ruling party is fragmenting while opposition groups are deeply divided by class, region and personality. Efforts at government reform have stalled, and a dispute over elections two years ago has not been resolved. The terms of almost all the country’s legislators expire at the end of November with no solution in sight.

Devoid of investment and significant production, the economy is shrinking. International aid has been withheld because of widespread corruption and the political disarray. The national currency has been cut in half by inflation, forcing citizens whose average earnings barely top $1 a day to scrounge ever harder for food and work.

Increasing crime, poverty and disease plague the country’s streets. Its cities are swelling with economic refugees from the countryside, where villages are isolated by a crumbling highway system, electrical shortages and scant food and water.

Many leaders of the media, church and university have been killed, co-opted or driven into exile by threats from gangs loosely aligned with Aristide’s ruling Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) Party.

“What’s changed now is the impunity of the violence,” said Pierre Esperance, a longtime human rights activist and director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. “Before, the targets were well-known activists, people who stood up to the government.

Blaming America

“Now, it’s gotten so bad with the government’s political gangs, with mob actions and the crime on the street that ordinary people are being killed, disappearing,” he said. “The government doesn’t want any element of society that doesn’t agree with them to be able to speak.”

The depth of the despair is best measured in the poor rural hamlets and shantytowns that were once the bedrock of Aristide’s support. Now there is no shortage of loud, angry denunciations of the priest-turned-president.

“We were all Lavalas supporters here,” said Wilfred Ferdinand, a fisherman in Chou Chou Bay, the small village on Haiti’s north coast that launched the boat of refugees that landed in Miami’s Biscayne Bay in late October. “We believed in Aristide but things are only growing worse. All we have is what we can grow or get from the sea and that isn’t enough. The cost of rice is now twice what is was a month ago.”

In Cité Soleil, the vast slum of about 200,000 people in the nation’s capital, a man angrily cursed a faded mural of the president.

“I’m 41 years old and I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he screamed in front of a small crowd of onlookers. “Not one real job have I had. How does that happen? This guy, he promised us so much; now we’re worse off than before.”

The potential for a major political disaster is grave, agree Haitians, foreign experts and diplomats.

As anger builds, U.S. officials fear another massive refugee influx on Florida’s shore like the one that came after Aristide was ousted in a bloody military coup.

Unlike 1994 — when Aristide was returned from two years in exile — there is no clear solution to Haiti’s problems. Haiti is far down the list of the Bush administration’s foreign policy priorities — it is neither a military nor economic threat, only a humanitarian one. And there is no Aristide to replace Aristide — a charismatic leader who has no comparable rival, and who still has control over its armed forces.

Lavalas leaders blame the United States and describe their economic isolation as an “embargo” similar to that of Cuba or Iraq.

They point to the estimated $500 million in aid that has been withheld by the international community because of the dispute over elections in 2000.

Aid delayed

“There’s a campaign inside and outside the country to bring down the government, and the United States is a big part of it,” said Yves Cristalin, a Lavalas member who serves in the Chamber of Deputies. “They are trying to paint us as some kind of bete noire [albatross] and then force us to give up our independence like other countries. You look at a country like the Dominican Republic, and it doesn’t belong to the Dominicans — it’s owned by multinational firms.”

The government insists it has followed through on promised reforms, paying $1 million in reparations to victims of pro-Aristide political violence, disarming many of the country’s street gangs and backing electoral reform that has been rejected by opposition parties. Still, the much-needed aid — loans totaling $146 million from the Inter-American Development Bank and about $350 million in aid from the European Union — has not been released. United States aid to Haiti continues, though it has shrunk from a high of about $250 million annually just after Aristide’s return in 1994 to this year’s $55 million appropriation. The aid doesn’t go directly to the government, but is channeled through humanitarian groups.

Aristide decried

The government’s complaint that the international community is shunning Haiti doesn’t hold water with many of Aristide’s former supporters. In August, thugs wearing T-shirts with Aristide’s picture attacked the State University of Haiti, once another bastion of Lavalas support, when students and teachers protested the government’s removal of the school’s popular president.

“The university was the last institution where there was a democratic opening, where there was freedom of speech free from government interference,” said Josué Merilen, a professor who represents the national teachers’ union. “The government has slowly erased journalists, other political opponents and human rights activists.

“I don’t think you can blame the international community for this situation at all — this is a Haitian problem with Aristide.”

Inside its campus walls, the university is covered with graffiti calling for Aristide’s ouster.

“In a country like Haiti that’s full of garbage all over its streets, where half the kids cannot go to school and many live on the street — in a country like this Aristide is spending millions on himself and his cronies and nothing’s changing,” said Georges Jocelin, 32, a law student and protest leader.

“I didn’t want this to happen–I supported the guy. I went into hiding with a lot of other people during the coup. I was out on the streets, and I almost was killed many times,” Jocelin said.

“I’m not happy about having to go through this all over again, but he’s becoming another dictator. I don’t buy the argument it’s going to change if he gets more international money.”

Haiti offers a lesson in both the promises and pitfalls of nation building. A country of only 7 million people, it was once a premier tourism destination in the Caribbean despite a history full of coups and other upheavals.

Half of its people cannot read or write, and almost 80 percent live in abject poverty under a small middle class and a wealthy oligarch of merchant families originally from France, Italy and the Middle East.

`A culture of violence’

Its resort image, and much of its income, disintegrated with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. A few years later, the country’s longtime dictators, the Duvalier family, were ousted. A series of political upheavals culminated in the free election of Aristide in 1990.

Yet despite the return of a popular, democratically elected president backed by U.S. forces, international troops and hundreds of millions in annual foreign aid, the country’s slide into deeper impoverishment continued, experts say. Ill-fated schemes by international development organizations share some blame, experts concede, and efforts to build institutions such as the police and the judiciary didn’t stay the course. In 1996, the United States pulled out of the country.

But much blame, many say, lies in misrule and political infighting that have been the rule in Haiti almost since rebelling slaves founded the nation in 1804. Aristide’s popularity with the majority of the country’s poor didn’t force him to compromise.

Whenever he seemed threatened, he often fell back on his ability to call on threatening mobs for street justice. Citing the hostile political climate, the United Nations and the World Bank also have pulled out of Haiti.

The country’s political opposition, organized as small parties often built around a single personality, has been resistant to any negotiation with Aristide. After a Dec. 17 attack on the National Palace, which the government described as a coup attempt, pro-government mobs hunted down opposition members and attacked their headquarters in several cities. At least 11 people were killed.

“The Haitian political culture is a culture of violence, and that is because it’s long been linked with dictators,” said Victor Benoit, a member of the Democratic Convergence, an umbrella group of about 20 parties aligned against Aristide. “The people have a strong yearning for democracy. What is lacking is the leadership that’s up to the task.

“Hopefully things are evolving to the point where we don’t look to saviors, just leaders who can work with each other.” said Benoit as he sat in the headquarters of the Convergence, which has not been repaired since being burned last December.

Election council

In September, the Organization of American States passed a resolution calling for the creation of an elections council, made up of representatives from the government, churches, business, human rights groups and political parties, to oversee a national vote next year.

The OAS also called upon the government to disarm political militants and arrest suspects in several cases of political violence.

But the Nov. 4 deadline came and went without agreement on the council. Opposition parties aligned with the Convergence urged a boycott of the council, while other groups said they wouldn’t join until Aristide made further progress on disarming the pro-Aristide gangs known here as chimeres (chimeras).

“The long and short of this situation is that key actors have been unwilling to rise above entrenched personal positions ? on terms allowing for an end to the fragmentation and paralysis that are leading the country as a whole toward disaster,” said Luigi Einaudi, assistant secretary general of the OAS.

That disaster may come in months, or in years. One diplomat refers to Haiti as a “the ultimate survivor country” while Esperance said predicting any course in such a chaotic climate is impossible.

“I don’t know how long this situation can last–there is really no alternative to Aristide,” said Esperance, who was shot several times during political violence in 2000, the last election year. “What’s clear is that the country can explode at any time.”

Tim Collie can be reached at tcollie@sun-sentinel.com.