GONAïVES AND PORT-AU-PRINCE
?JESUS will come back soon.? Or so promises a graffito on an abandoned market stall in the centre of Port-au-Prince. In Haiti, miracles are much needed but in short supply. As if Haitians?the poorest people in the Americas?did not have enough to deal with, torrential rains hit their country and the neighbouring Dominican Republic this week, unleashing floods and devastating mudslides. Some 2,000 people were reported killed in the border region between the two countries, half of them in one Haitian town.
For Haiti, the floods add to the pains of a country exhausted by political turmoil and economic disintegration. It is still struggling to recover a sense of normality after the rebellion which ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in late February. For the second time in a decade, foreign troops have stepped in. But stability and economic recovery remain distant goals.
On June 1st, United Nations peacekeepers are due to take over from a 3,600-strong Multinational Interim Force (MIF), led by American and French troops, that arrived as Mr Aristide departed. On April 30th, the Security Council authorised the deployment of 6,700 troops and 1,622 policemen for six months, under Brazilian command. But only some 1,800 blue helmets will be on the ground by early June. They include the Canadian and Chilean contingents of the MIF. More than 1,000 police have been promised so far, but few of them speak French. It is hoped that the UN force will be operational by the end of June, when the last of the French and Americans go.
These arrangements look rickety. But there are some encouraging signs. A transitional government of technocrats headed by Gérard Latortue, a former UN official, is in place, pending elections some time next year. The insurgents who forced Mr Aristide out?mainly ex-soldiers and a turncoat militia of former loyalists?appear to be in check. Foreign troops have contributed to a sense of order. Children in school uniform stroll the streets.
This relative improvement should not be confused with genuine stability. Fighting may have stopped, but insecurity is rampant. Behind the metal bars that attempt to protect his cash register, a shopkeeper in Port-au-Prince laments that crime and rocketing prices have cost him about 75% of his business. His shop was recently attacked by ten armed robbers. Several nearby stores have closed. Outside, street traders complain they still face extortion from pro-Aristide militias. Reports of kidnaps, shootings and robberies abound.
The UN force must try to impose order on a country of 8m people with no army (Mr Aristide disbanded it in 1995) and a small and ill-armed police force. During the chaos that preceded Mr Aristide’s ousting, weapons were stolen or seized from the police and distributed to the regime’s militias, known as chimères. They were allowed a free hand to loot and terrorise. Prisons were emptied. So common are guns that a poster in a supermarket advises people to avoid pointing them at foreign peacekeepers: they may take it as a threat.
A first task for Mr Latortue’s government is to rebuild the shattered police. From 6,000 officers before the February uprising, the force has shrunk to 2,500, most of whom are in the capital. According to Jean-Yonel Trécile, a police spokesman, the force lost half its vehicles in the rebellion; many police stations lack weapons.
In all, some 15,000 or so police are needed. There is no shortage of candidates: recruitment started in March but had to be suspended when over 35,000 applicants desperate for a job showed up. Current plans call for training 1,200 recruits over the next two years; in addition, some ex-soldiers, dismissed without income or pension when the army was abolished, will also join.
This may help to appease some of the rebels. They have been excluded from the new government, but have hung on to many of their weapons. A ceremony on May 18th in which rebels were supposed to hand over their guns in Gonaïves, the town where the rebellion started, turned into a protest against ?French occupation?.
Some rebel leaders, such as Guy Philippe, a former police chief, and Buteur Metayer, a gang leader, seem willing, for now, to reinvent themselves as politicians. They have created a new party, the National Reconstruction Front. Others are bitter. Wilford Ferdinand (who calls himself Ti Will), a former policeman turned rebel, still lives in a small house in the slum of Raboteau in Gonaïves. Clutching a gun under his arm as two naked toddlers nap on the bare concrete floor, he says he wants training and a job. Outside, a group of angry youths parade around the block, shouting anti-government slogans. They accuse Mr Latortue, who is from Gonaïves, of handing out jobs to his relatives and friends.
In Gonaïves, 150 French troops are supposed to help anxious policemen secure a vast tract of central Haiti. According to Captain Georges-Henri Tourmente, a French officer, the rebels are no longer an organised force there. The same cannot be said elsewhere. Until recently, the small Chilean force in the central town of Hinche, a rebel stronghold, was flown back to the capital each night.
If the new government has to find a way to integrate the former rebels, the same goes for supporters of Mr Aristide. Though his rule degenerated into thuggishness and corruption, the former president is still seen by many among Haiti’s poor majority as the only politician who has their interests at heart.
With Mr Aristide in Jamaica, and perhaps heading for exile in South Africa, his Lavalas Family party is in disarray. Several of its top leaders have left or are hiding. Others have been arrested or are being investigated for drug trafficking or human-rights abuses. Lavalas protests that it is suffering a witch hunt. Though it was involved in the negotiations over the interim government, it has so far declined to take part in the electoral commission supposed to prepare next year’s elections.
Lavalas moderates, such as Leslie Voltaire, a former minister, insist that the party has a future without Mr Aristide. He mixes populist rhetoric with talk of national reconciliation and compromise. But Mr Aristide, who claims he was kidnapped by the Americans (who deny this), is still influential in the slums. On May 18th, thousands of demonstrators in Port-au-Prince demanded his return. In Cité Soleil, one of the capital’s poorest districts and once an Aristide stronghold, a new generation of gangsters, some as young as 12, are taking over from those forced into hiding by the American troops.
For most Haitians, life is all about survival. Two-thirds of them lack a proper job. The price of rice has almost doubled since January. Mountains of rubbish have piled up in the streets. In Port-au-Prince, there is no water and almost no electricity for those who cannot afford generators. Good roads exist only in the memory of those old enough to remember better days.
Estimates of the cost of the looting and destruction of property in February range from $100m to $300m. Public services collapsed. That was a body blow to an economy already wounded by years of mismanagement, general instability, a UN embargo in the early 1990s and a suspension of foreign aid after 2000. The only growth business has been the trafficking of Colombian cocaine.
The interim government is pleading for outside help. Mr Latortue recently went on a foreign tour to drum up pledges for a donor conference to be held next month in Ottawa. The government lacks cash to pay salaries for the next few months, let alone to start investing in roads, sanitation or police stations. ?To say that the situation is difficult is a polite understatement,? says Henri Bazin, the finance minister.
In March, the UN launched a $35m emergency appeal, but less than $9m has been received so far. The United States recently promised $160m for this year. Undisbursed funds from the Inter-American Development Bank for Haiti could be quickly unblocked.
A readier source of cash is the $1 billion that the Haitians living abroad send back home each year. That amounts to three times the country’s exports or the government’s budget. Most of this money is spent on food and clothes. It helps to pay for survival, not reconstruction.
Haitians are growing angry over rising food prices and mounting rubbish. Many criticise the interim government for being too slow. But, for now, the loose coalition of opposition politicians and civic groups which helped to oust Mr Aristide vows to continue working with Mr Latortue.
Haiti’s failures are rooted in its history, but also in its social and racial divisions. Mr Aristide did not offer a solution, but he was far from the country’s only problem. ?Union is strength?, reads Haiti’s flag. Unfortunately, Haitians have rarely borne this in mind for very long. Outsiders can do much to keep Haiti’s faint opportunity for a new start alive. But it is up to Haitians to seize it.