Originally: Haiti is worse than rock bottom as interim leaders unable to stem poverty, crime

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti· Jean, 31, a street vendor wearing a tattered straw hat, stands under a searing midday sun on a street corner in this city’s grungy downtown, his arms and shoulders laden with nylon duffel bags.

“Look over there,” he says, pointing to a dirt side street strewn with garbage. “That street used to be full of buses and vendors. It was impossible to pass. Now, it’s empty.”
Almost daily shootings have decimated business in this once pulsing commercial hub of Port-au-Prince, says Jean, whose friend, also a street vendor, was shot and killed a month ago. Neither Jean, who feared retribution if his last name were used for this story, nor others in the neighborhood say they know who is responsible for the shootings.

“You can stand here all day and not sell anything. What’s worse, you don’t make any profits,” said Jean, whose earnings have been cut in half because the price at which he buys the bags has risen.

Many Haitians thought they had hit rock bottom last February, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from power amid an armed revolt fuelled by a perpetual political conflict and a sinking economy. But a new interim government has been unable to keep conditions from further deteriorating in the hemisphere’s most poverty-stricken nation, despite the presence of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH.

Crime is rampant and urban slums have become war zones. Jobs are scarcer than ever and prices are rising. International aid is flowing too slowly.

Violence has racked Port-au-Prince since Sept. 30, when several thousand Aristide supporters staged a demonstration that was broken up when police fired into the crowd.

The desperately poor slum of Cite Soleil has become a lawless battlefield of rival gangs. Many families have fled, businesses and schools are shuttered, and the slum’s only hospital is closed indefinitely. The recent violence has buffeted an already moribund economy. Inflation has topped 22 percent since January, according to Camille Chalmers, an economist with PAPDA, a Port-au-Prince-based think tank. Street vendors in poor neighborhoods complain that prices have risen even more for staples like rice, corn flour, beans and cooking oil.

The U.N. Development Program estimates that 65 percent of the population live on less than one U.S. dollar a day — and is getting poorer. “A lot of people were hoping this transitional government would break with the economic decline that we’ve experienced since the 1980s, but things have just gotten worse,” said Chalmers. “The government’s policy so far has been to wait for massive external financing without taking any of its own initiatives.”

To make matters worse, Haiti has suffered two devastating natural disasters this year, with thousands dying in mudslides and floods in the northwestern coastal city of Gonaïves from Tropical Storm Jeanne in September and near the border with the Dominican Republic from torrential rains last May.

Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has criticized the international community for not supplying enough troops and money to quell unrest and to revive the economy.

So far, 4,500 soldiers and 1,000 police officers have joined the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, short of the promised 6,700 soldiers and 1,622 police that had been expected. U.N. officials say these goals will be reached by the end of the year.

Promises of international aid have so far proved largely empty. While U.N. vehicles and blue-helmeted soldiers are ubiquitous on Port-au-Prince’s main thoroughfares, few Haitians have seen the development and job creation heralded in a $1.2 billion aid plan announced by the international community last July.

A mission by the International Monetary Fund, whose approval is needed to unlock aid from other lenders, was canceled last month due to the violence in Port-au-Prince.

“We all think it could go faster than it has gone so far,” said Adama Guindo, who is the MINUSTAH official in charge of overseeing development and humanitarian assistance in Haiti. Guindo said he expected IMF approval soon because the government had met budgetary targets by reducing spending and increasing tax revenue.

“The government has done nothing in the areas of job creation, production, public works,” said Jean-Claude Paulvin, president of the Haitian Association of Economists who runs a consulting firm that counts the government among its clients. “To their credit, they’ve only been there for eight months, and they’ve put most of their energy into getting help from the international community … My concern is that if the political situation stays the same, if there is no security, the economy will not take off even with international aid.”

Latortue has accused Aristide supporters of trying to destabilize the government, accusing the former president of fomenting violence from his exile in South Africa. The government has cracked down on members of Aristide’s Lavalas party, arresting leaders and staging police raids in pro-Aristide neighborhoods, leading some human rights observers to criticize the government of abuses.

Some hardliners are calling for an even tougher stance. “Shoot them and ask questions later,” said Jean Philippe Sassine, who is assistant mayor of Port-au-Prince and appointed by Latortue. “Right now our country needs security. Unless you clean up the bad people, the gangs, there will be no progress. It will be a massacre, people will die. But let us do it or it will be worse.”

For their part, former soldiers who control much of the countryside, and who have turned a Port-au-Prince apartment complex into a temporary military base, warn they will take matters into their own hands if the government does not allow them to wipe out Aristide supporters. They are calling for the restoration of Haiti’s military, a force known for its corruption and brutality that Aristide disbanded in 1995.

Latortue has said this is an issue that must be decided by the next administration.

“If the government doesn’t take responsibility, we will take it,” said former army Sgt. Remissainthe Ravix, speaking from a sparse office between repeated incoming calls on his three cellular phones while about 50 men in camouflage lounged around the apartment complex outside. “If they want security, we will give it to them. If they give us the order, in three days we’ll clear Bel Air and Cite Soleil of bandits.”

Government and MINUSTAH officials have rebuffed such entreaties from the former military. At the same time, Haitian police and U.N. forces have avoided confronting the former soldiers, while they have led frequent raids in search of pro-Aristide gangs in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

While many Lavalas leaders are either in jail or in exile, the party continues to command strong support from Haiti’s poor, who say that as bad as they might have been under the former president, they are worse off now.

“Things in this country have always been tough. Now, they’re even harder,” said Junior Joseph, 25, a painter who lives in the downtown slum of Martissant. “There was insecurity before Aristide left the country. Now it’s worse. People are hungry and they have guns. If this continues there will be a civil war .. We’re not saying the president has to come back, but something has to change.”