Originally: Duvalier Redux?
For the past two months, Haiti has been paralyzed by strikes and violent marches. Last week’s walkout by the nation’s public-school teachers was just the latest in a string of protests against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his ineffective policies. Once the hope for democracy in the tiny island nation, Aristide has recently come to be seen as the cause of the people’s plight rather than their salvation.
So what happened to the overwhelming support for Aristide? Since his re-election in 2000, human-rights abuses, soaring prices and the government’s failure to curb poverty have sent the president’s approval ratings into the gutter. Two thirds of the labor force is unemployed, and six of every 10 people are malnourished. Prices for basic necessities increased sharply last year, and a recent transport strike was triggered by steep hikes in the price of gasoline and kerosene used by the urban poor to light their shanties. “The average person is worse off today than he was in 1991,” says economic consultant Jean-Claude Paulvin. “No wonder the people have revolted.”
Admittedly, Aristide’s Lavalas party has had little to work with. For the past two years the Bush administration, Canada, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have effectively blocked about $500 million in aid and loans earmarked for Haiti because of charges of fraud in 2000’s parliamentary vote. Aristide has “been ground down” by this “destructive policy,” says Larry Birns, di–rector of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. Haiti‘s political opposition–a chronically splintered coalition–has also been uncooperative, attempting to block almost every Aristide initiative. With few options, Aristide “has failed to deliver” on promises both to his people and to the international community, says a diplomatic source in the region.
What’s making matters worse, say critics, is the fact that Aristide is resorting to authoritarian rule to keep control. Almost every antigovernment demonstration is quelled by groups of violent pro-Aristide thugs; the recent unrest has claimed the lives of five people and left more than a hundred wounded. Opponents say the president is resorting to tactics used by the dictator Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude. “The Lavalas movement lost its way,” says Father Max Dominique, a former ally of the president’s. “And little by little [its] thugs have become what Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes used to be.” Aristide has countered his critics with calls for “peace.” But it’s likely more chaos will come first.
–Jane Regan and Malcolm Beith