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HAITI
From bad to worse
Jane Regan
4/10/2002
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Without help from relatives abroad, most Haitians would not survive.

Andrée Pierre has always been able to get by. She irons, cleans offices and sells candles and canned milk in downtown Port-au-Prince, while her daughter sometimes does laundry for a wealthier neighbor.

Their little household, which includes her young granddaughter, also receives support from relatives abroad: half a sack of rice one month, a carton of used blue jeans or candles to sell the following month, or US$50 when times are good for the estimated 2 million Haitians who live abroad.

Not everyone in Haiti makes it to age 63, well beyond average life expectancy. But these days, things are as bad as they have ever been, and Pierre is not sure she will make it to 64.

"Today, I only had a bit of coffee and some bread to eat," she said on a dark afternoon when rain clouds threatened to burst over the steamy capital. "Some days, if I haven’t sold enough candles, I don’t even have that."

Last year, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was inaugurated with the slogan, "2001 will be really good." Inflation, however, ran at almost 9.5 percent, the Haitian currency lost another 21 percent and the gross domestic product, which had inched up 1 percent in 2000, fell by about 1 percent last year. Agricultural production also dropped, assembly plants laid off workers, who had been earning a mere $1.50 per day, and coffee and mango exports plummeted.

"We keep waiting for things to get better, since Aristide promised us so much with his beautiful words, but we haven’t seen anything," Pierre said.

The three women live in a tiny, dark room that they rent for $250 a year, cook over a charcoal stove in the alley and use a common latrine. With a roof over their heads and a nursery school for Pierre’s granddaughter, however, they are among the lucky in this country of 7.5 million.

"The money I make doesn’t support us. It’s what people send us that keeps us alive," Pierre said.

Without foreign remittances, estimated at about $600 million a year, many Haitians would not survive. Unemployment stands at 70 percent, and 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Haiti ranks 134th among the 162 countries on the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index. According to a US Agency for International Development study, households spend 73 percent of their income on food, up from 52 percent in the early 1990s.

"That means there is nothing left for things like housing, school and health care," said economist Camille Chalmers, executive director of the Haitian Platform for Alternative Development (PAPDA).

Haiti’s woes have many causes, but the main one is Aristide’s radical imposition of neoliberal economic policies during his truncated first term (1994-95), after the 1991-94 military government. His successor and fellow Lavalas Family party member, René Préval (1996-2001), maintained those policies, and the last eight years have seen a steady erosion of national production.

Foreign rice, corn, beans, coconuts, eggs, plantains, chicken and turkey parts, used clothing and tires, and scores of other products invade the country, mostly from the United States, under a near-zero-tariff policy, while the government provides no substantial support to local producers.

"The rural economy is collapsing," Chalmers said. "This is leading to increased migration to the cities, but when people get there they don’t find any work."

While there are some construction jobs in the capital, as luxury villas spring up on hills overlooking the capital, many small and medium-size industries have been shut down.

The piles of garbage and number of dilapidated taxis have increased, crime and insecurity are up and the young boys who used to wipe passing cars with blackened rags downtown now work as far away as the suburb of Pétionville.

"Thing have gotten a lot worse over the past two years. A few schools and roads were built, but imports of foreign products are crushing peasant farmers," said Ferry Pierre-Charles, an agronomist who works with small peasant organizations.

Aristide, a populist former priest, has led a party whose politicians have been plagued by charges of greed and ineptitude. Parliament has not passed a new budget or much else since 1996. Spending on health, education and other social programs has declined in real terms, while last year the current government purchased scores of new four-wheel-drive vehicles for lawmakers and spent about $7 million on three mansions for current and former officials.

In the most recent scandal, 70,000 metric tons of duty-free US and Asian rice were imported (LP, Feb. 25, 2002), supposedly to be distributed for free by party members. This resulted in the loss of an estimated $4.7 million in sales taxes and custom duties and hurt local rice farmers.

Aristide and his government blame their problems on Washington, the international community and the opposition Democratic Convergence, a coalition of the Lavalas Family’s former ally, the Struggling People’s Organization (OPL) party, and other small political groups. These parties contested elections in May 2000, then boycotted the presidential race last November (LP, Dec. 11, 2000 and Aug. 6, 2001).

The ensuing squabble caused the United States, Europe and the Inter-American Development Bank to hold up about $500 million in aids and loans.

More and more Haitians consider emigration their only alternative. The increase in the number of rickety boats arriving in the Bahamas and other islands prompted the Caribbean Community to break with the United States in February and urge the international community to release funds to Haiti for "humanitarian relief." So far, however, Washington has refused to budge.

"Please, make the big bosses sit down together and talk, so the country has a chance," implored one of this year’s Carnival songs. Another satirically described a government motorcade: "Officials in the front, the rice in the middle, and police in the rear. Protect the rice! Where is the rice?"

Although Pierre had little energy to laugh at the sharp-tongued tunes, she said, "We don’t have any choice — we have to continue to fight."

 


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