PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, December 29, 2006 – Take a stroll through downtown Port-au-Prince today and you’ll find a city that, even by Haitian standards, is in a desperate state.
You’ll find schools empty because administrators decided to cancel classes after a spate of student abductions. You’ll find the city’s public hospital full of sick and injured and dead, abandoned since mid-November, when personnel went on strike, saying the government had not paid them in six months. And, if you speak with street vendors, you’ll hear that they’re making less money than ever, and they’re afraid of violent crime.
But if an apparent outpouring of international support for Haiti’s new government is genuine, Haitians should be seeing some improvements soon.
At a donors’ conference last July, three months after the swearing-in of President Rene Garcia Preval, the international community pledged 750 million dollars to Haiti. This would be added to the one billion already pledged two years ago.
Last month, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund announced that Haiti would be eligible for relief for upwards of 15 percent of its current 1.3-billion-dollar foreign debt. And the Inter-American Development Bank also announced that it would develop a debt relief plan for Haiti.
And last week, after decades of turning down similar trade agreements, the U.S. Congress passed the Haiti Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act, which would expand Haitian manufacturers’ ability to export goods to the U.S. duty-free. Industrialists say the legislation, for which Preval himself had lobbied Congress, is likely to create tens of thousands of jobs.
The international support expressed toward Preval and his government is a rare occurrence in the history of Haiti, which began, as the first black republic on Earth, heavily indebted to France and economically isolated from a racist First World. In recent decades, the international community imposed sanctions on a brutal military regime, and subsequently withheld loans and aid to the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, citing corruption, irregular elections and outstanding debt.
Only after Preval beat out 32 other candidates with close to 50 percent of the vote in an election of overwhelming turnout did countries of the Western Hemisphere across the political spectrum express approval for the Haitian leadership.
So why is all this progress not being felt on the ground? In Haiti there is a historically justified suspicion that if something can go wrong, it will, and the genuineness of professed international support is not yet clear. Only a tiny fraction of the 1.5 billion dollars pledged has been disbursed, and much of the debt forgiveness promised by lenders hinges on the Haitian government developing certain government reform and anti-poverty programmes.
What’s more, potential economic stimulants like HOPE face the countervailing force of seemingly uncontrollable violent crime.
Since the ouster of Aristide in 2004, foreign forces in Haiti have grown steadily, now reaching more than 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers. But at the same time, civilian possession of weapons of war, such as Kalashnikovs and M-16s, has been on the rise in Port-au-Prince.
In one neighbourhood, gangs fight U.N. troops, while at the other end of town gangs fight each other. In the first, Haitian police dare not enter unaccompanied by U.N. troops. In the second, Haitian police themselves have been implicated in gang activity. And throughout Port-au-Prince, kidnappers regularly take rich and poor, toddlers and the elderly, for ransom and sometimes much worse.
A U.N.-headed programme, Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, has so far yielded little. Dozens of gang members have entered into the programme, which offers training in areas such as human rights and civic responsibility, and ultimately job placement. But participants did not disarm, and a few were implicated in kidnappings within days of their graduation from the programme.
In a related strategy, the president himself has negotiated with gang leaders. Not only has this approach provoked severe condemnation from Haitian civil society leaders and a U.N. human rights expert, but it does not appear to have yielded any progress. The state of insecurity has had a devastating effect on the economy. The number of factories in Port-au-Prince has steadily declined since Aristide’s departure.
The notorious slum Cite Soleil, where gangsters regularly battle with U.N. peacekeepers, developed when a free trade zone was created on the edge of the capital three decades ago. Peasants had poured into the city for jobs in the zone, and when the economy soured, it became a settlement of the unemployed. The factories that remained were imperiled by angry youths from the slum. Some closed after multiple employee or management kidnappings. Others were burned down or vandalised.
In recent years, business leaders have led multiple sit-ins and marches protesting the U.N.’s inefficacy in dealing with problems of insecurity. More recently, they have spoken out against the government for not doing enough on the security front.
But while some insist that security is the necessary condition for economic growth, others emphasise that security will never happen without economic growth.
The downtown slum Bel Air is one area that has benefited from the presence of U.N. troops over the past year. Once completely paralysed by gangs, stores and schools have reopened, and traffic moves smoothly through the streets. But Jean-Baptiste Sarol, the spokesman for a community organisation that helps street children, said without job creation, it’s just a matter of time before people take up arms again.
“Think about the youth who hands over his gun and wants to get some kind of job,” he told IPS. “He can only hold onto that hope for so long before he returns to what he was doing before. If you get people to do something, and then there’s no support, and your parents aren’t working or your spouse isn’t working and your kids are depending on you, violence will come back.”
Sarol’s words have been echoed by gang leaders in capital slums, who have, over local radio waves, threatened violence if the government does not give them jobs. Many of these slum-dwellers were employed under Aristide and laid off after his ouster.
Even leaders of the U.N. peacekeeping mission have insisted the same — that Haiti’s insecurity problems are largely economic in origin and must be addressed as such.
And U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, on a recent visit to Haiti, told IPS that the world can’t wait for the violence to end before pushing for economic progress here.
Expressing support for the HOPE Act, she said, “In the short term, if one were to wait for the security situation to dramatically improve throughout the country, including in Port-au-Prince, then it would be very hard to move forward.” (IPS)