By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A01
Brazilian troops arrived in Port-au-Prince Saturday as part of a U.N. peacekeeping team that will replace U.S. troops. Haiti depends almost entirely on foreign forces for security. (Daniel Morel — Reuters)
SAINT-MARC, Haiti — Police chief Jean Ronald Baptiste has a .38-caliber pistol in his holster and a nicely pressed policeman’s uniform with shiny black shoes. That’s the extent of his crime-fighting gear. He said he’s so out-gunned and out-manned by the armed factions in this volatile town that he and his 90 officers never leave the station without an escort of peacekeeping soldiers from France.
“The police really exist only in name,” said Baptiste, standing in his police station, which, like many across the nation, was looted and burned during weeks of violence that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29. “For the time being, the country has no control.”
Three months after Aristide left the country for exile aboard a U.S. government plane, Haiti has barely picked itself up. A U.S.-led military force of 3,600 troops has been patrolling the country since Aristide’s departure, but is phasing out starting Tuesday, to be replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping team, led by Brazil, with 6,700 soldiers and more than 1,600 civilian police officers. Officials said 1,900 U.S. troops would be rotated out of the country over the next several weeks.
Haiti has been almost completely dependent on foreign troops for its security and foreign aid to stave off insolvency and feed its people. Floods last week that killed at least 1,300 people underscored the country’s near-total dependence on international assistance. For days, the only aid to reach people in the disaster areas was donated food ferried in on U.S. and Canadian military helicopters.
“The government doesn’t have control of the country; it is very weak and very slow,” said Pierre Esperance, head of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in Port-au-Prince. “If the government was willing to make more effort, they could do more. But you don’t see their efforts, you don’t feel them.”
The spasm of violence that killed scores of people in February is over, but violent pro-Aristide and anti-Aristide groups have not been disarmed. Baptiste, Esperance and others said the foreign military presence is the only thing keeping those gangs from picking up their weapons again.
Esperance credited the international forces with bringing general security back to the streets, but said they should be doing more to confront the remaining armed gangs: “The international forces are not here on vacation; they should be disarming these people.”
The new prime minister, Gerard Latortue, presides over an interim government that is seen by foreign observers and many Haitians as honest but weak. Some said it was too soon to judge the government’s performance, especially given the enormous problems it inherited in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
In addition to preparing for new presidential elections next year, Latortue’s chief mission at the moment is to fix the financial “mess” he inherited from Aristide to keep the country from going broke, said a Haitian government official familiar with economic policy.
A review of the country’s accounts revealed that Aristide’s government went on a “spending spree” in its last five months in office and that tens of millions of dollars from government checking accounts were unaccounted for, said the official, who showed a reporter government financial records on the condition that he not be identified.
He said at least 60 percent of the Aristide government’s spending, not including salaries and debt service, was run through discretionary accounts with no records of who received the money. For example, he said, the government last year appeared to have overpaid for new Port-au-Prince city buses by at least $3 million under a contract brokered by a friend of Aristide.
“It is hard for me to fathom that level of spending,” the official said.
Asked if Aristide stole money from the treasury, Leslie Voltaire, a U.S.-educated former minister in Aristide’s government and one of his closest advisers, said, “I don’t know.” Asked about allegations by Aristide’s critics that the former president was also involved in drug trafficking, Voltaire said, “I don’t think so,” and added, “There are a lot of rumors.”
The economic official who reviewed Haiti’s accounts said that largely because of the unaccounted-for spending during Aristide’s final months, Haiti is facing a “very precarious” economic situation. He said it is seeking at least $80 million to pay its daily operating costs through the summer, plus at least a half-billion dollars in the next two years to begin rebuilding nearly nonexistent institutions, including systems of justice, health and education.
The United States has pledged $35 million toward the country’s budget shortfall, part of a package of $100 million in aid it announced this week. The rest is for programs to promote job creation and security. The United States, Canada, France, the European Union, the World Bank and other donors are scheduled to announce a more comprehensive aid package for Haiti in July. The Haitian official said Haiti was hoping for as much as $700 million.
Voltaire accused the new government of kowtowing to demands from the United States and other donors. He said the fiscal reforms demanded by the donors — including more transparent financial management, restoration of cash reserves and measures to control the inflation that has topped 25 percent in the past year — were being done “without anesthesia” and would be painful.
“Mr. Latortue has taught us a lesson,” Voltaire said. “If you want to get some results from the international community, you have to bow and tap-dance.”
As the government struggles with security and economic woes, many Haitian people said they had seen few improvements. That sentiment was common in interviews here in Saint-Marc, a commercial port city about 40 miles northwest of the capital. This city was the site of some of the worst fighting in February, when anti-government rebels, including former death squad participants, accused drug traffickers and members of Haiti’s disbanded military, entered the country from the Dominican Republic. They launched a wave of attacks that spread across the country and ultimately forced Aristide to flee.
Officials estimate that as many as 50 people were killed in Saint-Marc, which was taken over by an anti-government group, then taken back four days later by armed groups loyal to Aristide, including a gang called Bale Wouze, meaning Clean Sweep in Creole. Residents said most of the killing was done by that group, much of it on a single day, Feb. 11, when witnesses said the militiamen massacred anti-government rebels and their sympathizers.
Baptiste, the police chief, patrols in the force’s only vehicle, a pickup truck with a cracked windshield that was confiscated from the rebels. He said he fled Saint-Marc for Port-au-Prince when the rebels came. When he returned his house had been ransacked.
Things are better now, but there is still tension, he said. “There is an element of fear all over and the people are very fearful and even we policemen are very fearful,” he said.
Ernst Etime, 45, a shopkeeper, fled his house in the La Scierie neighborhood just before Bale Wouze fighters torched it that day. His house is still charred and damaged from the fire, as are several others on his street, which is littered with burned-out cars and graffiti calling Aristide a vampire and a dog.
Etime said he was captured by men from Bale Wouze, who beat him so badly that he still has trouble seeing out of his left eye. He said they tied him up and took him to a nearby beach, where they said they would execute him. But he said he was eventually able to pay his captors $2,000 in cash to spare his life.
Now, he said, Saint-Marc has “a little more security — at least we are able to get some sleep.”
It was difficult to find anyone in Saint-Marc who admitted to supporting Aristide. After he fled and his armed supporters eventually gave up power, there were several reported cases of reprisal killings, often gruesome, of armed militiamen who terrorized Haiti in his name. As a result, many who supported Aristide now keep that fact to themselves.
“They all changed their shirts,” said Damalus Clairvoy, 81, who lives near the city’s commercial port in a neighborhood identified by residents as supportive of Aristide. “If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here to talk to you.”
The town’s split allegiances can be seen in graffiti spray-painted on businesses and houses, several of which were burned, looted and smashed to rubble in the fighting. Things were calm Sunday in the town’s square, where children in sky-blue school uniforms buzzed along in scooters, and the Kiss Inn advertised a weekend stay for the equivalent of $37.
In his little shop, which sold items from Guinness Stout to Red Rhino Energy Drink, Edgar Buissereth, 76, said the seeming tranquility was “just a facade.” “There’s no security, there’s not an atmosphere where you can grow,” he said.
Asked if the government was in control of Haiti, Buissereth smiled.
“We’re asking ourselves the same question,” he said. “Does Haiti really have a government? Has anything changed?”