Originally: Nearly two months after the forced departure of former President Aristide, Haiti’s interim government struggles to provide even the most basic of services.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — The streets are choking with garbage. There hasn’t been electricity for weeks, and justice remains at the mercy of corrupt judges and armed rebels.
That’s what a $100 million budget deficit, frozen foreign aid and virtually no local government infrastructure has led to as Haiti’s interim government struggles to provide even the most basic of services.
”Right now, they don’t have the key to restart the car,” said Jean-Marie Vorbe, a Haitian in the energy and road construction business. “The battery is down, the tires are flat and it’s all out of gas.”
The jalopy is Haiti, a grindingly poor country of nearly eight million people where months of upheaval and weeks of deadly political violence led to the Feb. 29 departure of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The driver is an interim government whose members, including several Haitian Americans, are moving so slowly that some here joke that Prime Minister Gerard Latortue may be trying to live up to his name — ”the turtle” in French.
”We didn’t think they would perform a miracle, but we did think it would move much faster,” said Paul Denis, a former opposition senator with the Organization of People in the Struggle.
Indeed, government promises to resolve the garbage and electricity problems have gone unfulfilled despite attempts early on. Security also remains a problem, despite scattered police checkpoints that have been largely ineffective in disarming the rebels or Aristide supporters.
Allegedly corrupt judges continue to sit on the bench, and no new mayors or other town administrators have been named in Haiti’s 134 communities to replace the Aristide supporters who held many of the local posts.
A CRITICAL TIME
With the hemisphere’s most impoverished nation at such a critical crossroads, much is riding on the interim government, critics and supporters say. But the government says it is doing its best with the few resources it has.
”The government is cash-strapped,” said government spokesman Robert Ulysse. “There is no money, and most of what was done in the past was done on credit.”
For instance, while the Aristide government could provide up to three hours of electricity a day by getting the Central Bank to advance it the $65,000-a-day cost, the new minister of public works, Jean-Paul Toussaint, opted against that system. He argued it would be cheaper to wait until the rainy season and then switch on a government-owned hydroelectric plant.
Meanwhile, the national electricity grid has been shut down for several weeks and Haitians who can afford the fuel must rely on private generators to light their evenings.
”The situation is very bleak,” Raymond Magloire, the newly appointed governor of the Central Bank, said of Haiti’s economic situation.
In December alone, the Aristide government overspent its budget by millions of dollars, with most of the money presumed to have gone to paying for the Jan. 1, 2004, celebrations marking Haiti’s 200th year of independence.
Officials in the new government say there’s also evidence of blatant corruption and little accounting of where large sums of money were spent and for what.
”Money is owed to everybody,” said Magloire, whose board has been charged by the interim government to give an accounting of the government’s financing.
Exacerbating the country’s financial woes is a lack of revenue. After Aristide’s departure, many of the government offices responsible for collecting revenue were shut down. Although some have reopened in the capital, anti-Aristide rebels still control some in outlying areas.
PRICE OF LOOTING
Damage from looting during the February revolt, variously estimated at $100 million to $300 million, also shrank the already-small tax base relied on by the government.
”In March, the tax people said they collected $4 million. They should have collected ten times that,” Magloire said.
Minister of Finance Henri Bazin said that while many foreign-aid donors are now reviewing their long-term approach to Haiti, they cannot overlook the country’s current crisis.
”If you want us to succeed, you have to do something to help us succeed,” he said. “Having come as far as this, we cannot go back.”