New Internationalist

Odd man out

Issue 094

Half the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Haiti became the world’s first black republic almost 200 years ago. Today that proud past is lost. The country is a tragic embarassment to its neighbours - a sink of corruption, poverty and foreign meddling. Greg Chamberlain reports from Port-au-Prince on Haiti’s autocratic Duvalier dictatorship.

Ronald Reagan saysthatanti-communist regimes willing to help reconstruct a Pax Americana in the Caribbean will get Washington’s enthusiastic backing when he takes office next month.

For the six million desperately poor inhabitants of Haiti, the Caribbean’s most populous and overcrowded country, this means a new shot in the arm for the brutal dictatorship which has reduced their country to ruin and bankruptcy over the past 23 years and kept it by far the region’s - and Latin America’s - poorest country.

The Duvalier dynasty, founded by the late Francois `Papa Doc’ Duvalier and now headed by his 29-year-old son and President­for-Life, Jean-Claude, has liquidated even by its own private admission at least 3,000 political opponents. Spokesmen for the 800,000-odd Haitians who have fled, mostly to Canada and the United States, put it at three times that.

And while their secret police have been tending the silence of the grave, the Duvaliers are estimated to have amassed a fortune of some $400 million out of for­eign aid and public funds, most of it stashed away in Swiss banks.

The world’s first independent black republic (1802) and once a beacon of liberty to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, Haiti is now shunned and isolated by its embarrassed neighbours.

The upsurge of nationalism and radical­ism in the Caribbean over the past 15 years as the European powers have eased their grip on the region has passed Haiti by. Instead, the former French colony has stayed politically and economically at the heel of the United States. Haiti’s ruling elite have remained sticklers for the appearances and mannerisms of French culture.

Caricom, the English-speaking group of Caribbean states, has refused Haiti’s membership, fearing that its huge popula­tion (Caricom’s 12 member states only total some five million), its poverty and corruption will destroy the careful balance of their organisation.

The Duvaliers have long traded on the country’s proximity to Cuba (just 50 miles away) to milk US aid agencies of funds supposed to kill off any Haitian appetite for radical reforms. Yet since Papa Doc died, the iron rule has slackened, more because of internal quarrels than because of deliberate policy or strong pressure from Washington.

Two small centrist political parties were founded and tolerated last year for the first time in 20 years. Now the leader of one and many of his supporters have been jailed. Most political prisoners have been freed, though the jails are filling again. Some workers dared to go on strike recently and to found independent trade unions. But they have little power as yet.

A non-government press and radio has developed and the regime’s policies arenow openly criticised. However, journalists are still arrested and occasionally murdered. References to the wealth and corruption of the presidential family are seen as `confusing liberty with anarchy’ in the government’s words.

There is a continuing struggle between the Duvalierist old guard (known locally as `the Dinosaurs’), centred on the wily Simone Duvalier, Papa Doe’s powerful widow, and a younger, slightly more outward-looking, sometimes more ‘tech­nocratic’ faction. But despite some victories by the latter, the `Dinosaurs’ still control both the state and the young president - though he has more than once threatened them with his resignation. And that would lead to the collapse of the whole delicately­balanced regime.

Real power still rests with the para­military forces Papa Doc created to counter the traditionally coup-bent army. The ill­equipped but effective `National Security Volunteers’ best known as the Tontons Macoutes, still keep Haitians in line. They are helped by the `Leopards’, a special anti-subversion force drawn from the army, created weeks after Papa Doe’s death and trained and armed by the United States. But there has been growing public anger - and recently demonstrations - at the brutalities of the Macoutes.

Every year, disease, famine and mal­nutrition are the lot of more and more Haitians. Eighty per cent of them earn less than a dollar a week. Half of all children die before they reach the age of five. Life expectancy is less than 40 years. Ninety per cent are illiterate. In the countryside, where 85 per cent of Haitians live, only three per cent have piped water, and there is only one hospital bed for every 13,000 people and one doctor or nurse for every 30,000. There are more Haitian doctors practising in Montreal than in all of Haiti.

Uncontrolled tree felling has reduced much of the highly-mountainous country to a virtual dessert in only a few decades. Thousands of tons of topsoil are swept into the sea every time it rains. There is no effective reforestation programme. Already only 30 per cent of the land (60 percent of which is owned by one per cent of the population) is arable. Food imports increase yearly. They now comprise well over half of all imports.

Famine, especially in the arid north­west, has brought an onslaught of world charity. But the well-meaning shipments of food frequently fail to reach their tar­gets. And when they do, these staples are a major factor in the further destruction of Haiti’s economy. If you can get free food, you don’t need to buy any from local farmers. And if they can’t sell any, they don’t grow it. The entire community becomes parasitical. Dependence on the government, the towns and the Great White Foreigner becomes chronic. Nearly a million Haitians are currently locked into the vicious circle of food aid.

At the prodding of foreign aid agencies there has been some improvement in planning and statistics since Papa Doe’s death. But no-one has yet managed to break the grip of the `Dinosaurs’ on the state coffers.

The annual income of the Regie du Tabac, which handles all imported and most locally-produced staples, is some $40 million. Much of that goes straight to the Duvalier family, partly for their security forces. The World Bank has reported that regime officials drain off nearly half of all public revenues through some 300 secret accounts in the National Bank.

Pressure for fiscal reform is being exerted by Haiti’s foreign creditors, principally the US, Canada, France, West Germany, the World Bank and the IMF. That aid now accounts for nearly 60 per cent of Haiti’s budget. What may have clinched the creditors’ determination was the obscene extravagance of Duvalier’s $6 million wedding last May amid the mud and misery of ramshackle Port-au-Prince.

But the scandals, the shameless racket­eering and the sale of Haiti to the highest bidder goes on. US plans to export Haitian urine (to be collected from city urinals erected solely for this commercial purpose) and to dump Washington’s sewage in north­west Haiti were recently dropped after bad publicity.

Since the early 1970s, about 200 mostly American `offshore’ assembly or ‘screw­driver’ light industries have been lured to Haiti by tax holidays, an official minimum wage of just over $2 a day, and government assurances of no strikes. These factories produce everything from electronic parts to brassieres to most of the US supply of baseballs. Some 25,000 jobs have been created, mostly for women. But foreign investment can’t hope to meet the demand for jobs in a country with more than 70 per cent unemployment. And no Haitians are trained in the factories for any more than the most menial tasks.

This sector now accounts for about 40 per cent of Haiti’s exports. Coffee has slipped to second place. But the factories must import all their raw materials, using nothing Haitian except cheap labour. The superficial prosperity of Port-au-Prince these days means only that the Duvaliers have been shrewd enough to share out some of their booty with the middle class, the better to insulate themselves from popular wrath.

Little wonder with all this that thous­ands of leaky, overloaded, ancient sailboats have struggled the 900 miles from Haiti to Florida since 1972, carrying some 20,000 destitute people fleeing the political and economic furnace of their homeland. Others escape to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The Duvaliers make several million every year selling 15,000 of their subjects to Dominican sugar plantations to cut cane in slave labour conditions.

Haiti’s agony runs too deep for there to be any easy or quick solution. The mental­ity of dependence is too powerful. People think mostly of emigration. Passport rackets are booming. Some $30 million a year in remittances from relatives abroad help shore up the shattered economy. The universal acceptance, even preference for the US dollar over the local currency, the gourde symbolises the country’s plight. The Duvaliers have merely deepened the humiliation and destruction of the proud nation that once inspired a continent.

Greg Chamberlain writes on the Caribbean for theManchester Guardian and other publications.

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