Port-au-Prince, Haiti – Barefoot and splattered in mud, Tie Vierge
Joassaint squats in the courtyard of an abandoned prison that’s become a
squatters’ slum, setting out cakes made of clay, margarine and bouillon to
bake in the Caribbean sun.

Once the cakes are hardened, Joassaint will eat some. She will sell the
rest as food at a local market. At the price of three for a gourde, about
21/2 pennies, the brittle patties are one of few foods most Haitians can
still afford.

Joassaint, 40, figures she will still be eating clay cakes on Jan. 1, the
bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as the world’s first black republic.

“I have no money to celebrate,” says Joassaint, a widowed mother of four,
as she stirs another batch of gray batter in a plastic vat. “All I can be
thankful for is that God hasn’t yet allowed me and my children to die of

Two centuries after a dramatic slave rebellion ended Haiti’s status as the
pearl of Napoleon’s empire, Haiti is the hemisphere’s poorest country and
its exemplar of misery. And, nine years after the United States sent
soldiers here to implement a “regime change,” some observers see the
country’s plight as a cautionary tale for America’s interventions in Iraq
and Afghanistan.

After Haiti won independence, the United States, refused for decades to
recognize the black republic for fear it would foment slave mutinies at
home. In the past century, it invaded Haiti twice, most recently in 1994,
to restore the populist president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been
deposed three years earlier in a coup. But each time, critics say,
Washington quickly withdrew to more or less leave the country to its own
chaotic devices.

“The U.S. policy is basically to keep Haiti on the back burner,” said Dan
Erikson, a Haiti expert with Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank. As
in Iraq and Afghanistan, a country as dysfunctional as Haiti won’t prosper
without “sustained engagement over decades” from the international
community, Erikson said.

James B. Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, countered that Washington has
an “enormous” desire to help its southern neighbor.  “But in order to do
so,” Foley said, “you have to have a modicum of goodwill, you have to have
a modicum of stability, you have to have a modicum of confidence in the
rule of law” from the Haitian government.” 

He noted the US has poured billions of dollars into the country in recent
years.  “We have invested enormously in democracy, good government and the
rule of law, and that investment has been largely frittered away through
corruption and authoritarian practices,” he said.

On nearly every potholed street in this nation of 8 million, hordes of
people live in conditions nearly as squalid as those of their slave
ancestors. Armed thugs terrorize decrepit downtowns and remote hamlets,
some seeking to destabilize, other to uphold the government. Drug
trafficking, AIDS and illiteracy are rampant.

Hundreds of Haitians flee the country each year; 160,000 now live in New
York State.

A growing number of critics denounce Aristide. A populist former priest, he
was widely embraced as Haiti’s great hope for democracy after he was first
elected in 1990, but he is now seen by many as the latest in a series of
greedy dictators.

Aristide, who remains the nation’s most popular figure and was re-elected
in 2000, counters that his country’s woes are the fault of superpowers who
want to subjugate the former slave colony.

“Today’s misery is the result of a 200-year plot,” Aristide declared
Tuesday to wildly cheering fans – many bused in by the government – at
Vertières, the northern coastal battlefield where two centuries ago rebel
slaves won their decisive victory against the French. “Whether it’s slavery
or embargo, it’s the same plot,” he said. “You are victims, I am a victim.”

By embargo, Aristide was referring to international donors’ three-year-old
freeze on $500 million in aid to Haiti, a sum equal to the government’s
annual budget.

Though donors recently allowed the release of about one-third of those
funds, they are blocking the rest until Aristide convinces them the
government can hold legislative elections in a safe and fair environment.
Opposition forces and nations including the United States have slammed the
previous legislative elections, in 2000, as fraudulent.

Whatever the outside world’s role, some Haiti experts believe the
psychological legacy of colonialism also has stalled this country’s march
toward democracy. Since the revolution, they argue, the mulatto elite has
assumed the role of slave master over the black majority.

Haiti waited until 1986 to officially recognize Creole, the language of the
masses, and to lift sanctions against voodoo, its most widely practiced
religion. Only in 1991, under Aristide, did the government abolish a
two-tiered system of birth certificates that divided Haitians into
“peasants” and “citizens.”

“The mental unshackling has yet to come … and with it the ability to
build bridges between the classes,” said Louis Henri Mars, descendant of
prominent Haitian nationalists, including author Jean Price Mars, the first
intellectual to extol the notion of noirisme, Haitian black pride.

Festering class and racial schisms came to the fore Nov. 14 during a
demonstration by a coalition of business and civic organizations called the
Group of 184 that wants Aristide to cede power to a caretaker government.

As Group of 184 members – many of lighter complexion and relatively
well-dressed – marched into downtown Port-au-Prince, security forces
allowed them to be blocked by stone-throwing Aristide supporters, many of
them darker skinned and wearing tattered clothes.

“You with the lighter skin, you enslaved us, how can we trust you?” a young
man in the Aristide camp shouted at Group of 184 members.

Meanwhile, in Fort Dimanche – the abandoned prison where Joassaint survives
on the pennies she earns selling her clay patties, some desperate
slum-dwellers are wondering why they trusted Aristide.

A concrete-and-brick compound, Fort Dimanche is a symbol of Haiti’s failed
dreams. It first gained notoriety as a prison under the U.S.-backed
dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Hundreds of Haitians disappeared or were tortured behind its walls.

After his first election, Aristide announced he would turn the prison into
a monument, surround it with subsidized housing and baptize the complex
“Village Democracy.” Haitians too poor to pay rent flocked to Fort Dimanche
and squatted inside the crumbling prison, awaiting the transformation.

But instead of a model village, a shantytown of tin and concrete shacks
sprouted around Fort Dimanche. Giant pools of sewage fill the few open
spaces and coughing, barefoot children wander the fetid alleyways. Inside
the former penitentiary, squatters including Joassaint are crammed into
tiny rooms they’ve partitioned with cardboard and tree branches.

“The mosquitoes and rats wake us at night, and the flies attack us in the
day, but President Aristide never came back,” Joassaint said. “Once again,
we’ve been forgotten and abandoned.”