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8 Years After Invasion, Haiti Squalor Worsens (Read 44 times)
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8 Years After Invasion, Haiti Squalor Worsens
Jul 30th, 2002 at 3:22pm
By David Gonzalez, NY Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Sonia Jean-Pierre's life is one of apocalyptic misery. With hardly any food or work, her only refuge is a concrete cell. The searing sun is blotted out by cardboard pasted over the windows. On the wall by her bed, she has scrawled, "Jesus Christ is coming soon," like a promise of salvation to greet her every morning.

Ms. Jean-Pierre and hundreds of neighbors live as squatters inside the old Fort Dimanche Prison, once the brutally efficient killing chamber of the Duvalier dictatorships. A prison no longer, it has been renamed, hopefully, Village Democratie.

The poor cram themselves into the dingy cells and even inside the old sentry towers that look out over the surrounding shanties, where 2,000 more souls live without water, schools or electricity. Some are so desperate they eat pancakelike disks of bouillon-flavored clay. Poverty is the only jailer.

"We are free prisoners," said Ms. Jean-Pierre, who rested one recent afternoon on the cool concrete floor. "We are still living like prisoners."

Nearly eight years after the United States led an invasion of Haiti to oust a military junta and restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, Village Democratie is just one measure of this country's despairing slide.

Increasingly exasperated with Mr. Aristide's government, which has yet to resolve a two-year-old deadlock with its opposition, the United States and European countries have blocked some $500 million in aid, hoping to encourage greater democracy. Critics say the decision has merely eroded the hopes and deepened the poverty of this country's seven million or so people.

For a nation as poor as Haiti, withholding the money has become both carrot and stick. Haiti still lingers near the bottom of the United Nations' annual survey of living conditions. Life expectancy is less than 53 years. Preventable diseases go untreated. The yearly income of the average family is less than is needed to sustain a single person.

Mr. Aristide calls the withholding of the aid an "embargo." His American supporters, including the Congressional Black Caucus and well-paid lobbyists, say it is immoral to withhold the aid and punish the Haitian people, as government agencies go without budgets, plans or projects to provide water, health care and schools. Some $150 million from the United States, they note, might not only improve roads, water and health but also create jobs.

Still, diplomats and aid officials say, Mr. Aristide's use of the term "embargo" reflects calculated rhetoric more than reality. Trade and travel continue, and relief, including contributions from the United States, flows into Haiti through nongovernmental groups.

Solving Haiti's problems, they argue, will take more than just an infusion of aid. Most important, they say, Mr. Aristide has yet to prove that his government has escaped the corruption and destructive self-interest of governments past.

Meanwhile, the political stalemate, which arose over a disputed election, and the international response to it, have stalled what little functioning government democracy might have brought.

"The situation is getting worse for the majority of the people," said the Rev. Jan Hanssens, a Roman Catholic priest who sits on the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bishops' Conference. "There is certainly no hope unless there is a drastic reassessment of Haitian society itself. If things simply go on as now, there is no chance."

Along the streets of Village Democratie, faith in politicians is as elusive as a decent job. Faded posters of Mr. Aristide, wearing the presidential sash and with his arms outstretched, are his only presence.

Laughing young men crouched at the entrance to the former prison and gambled a few wrinkled gourde notes, the country's currency. Inside, past corridors whose crumbled walls reveal a weed-choked courtyard, people walked home after church clutching hymnals titled "Songs of Hope."

Inside tiny rooms with cardboard walls, slim shafts of sunlight cut through the haze of charcoal smoke from braziers where pots of rice boiled. There are no sewers or running water anywhere in the neighborhood, and when the rains come, they leave fetid puddles where malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed.

"Aristide said here is the room of the people," said Dorlis Ephesans. "But he has never showed his face here."

Some of the residents had tried to leave Haiti during the 1991 coup that ousted Mr. Aristide. Some made it to Miami, some died and others, like Israel Arince, were caught at sea and returned.

The same America that sent him back to Haiti and restored Mr. Aristide to power in 1994, Mr. Arince said, now makes life impossible.

"They have blocked the country from getting aid," he said. "We are human beings and we do not like to live like this. Only animals should live here."

In La Saline slum, down a busy road near the prison that is often choked with carts and traffic, pigs waded through streams of human waste and poked their snouts into mountains of garbage in a drainage canal. Young women dropped plastic buckets into a sewer and hauled out a gray water they would use to wash their floors. Potable water is too expensive.

"There is no way to be healthy here," said Elisena Nicolas, who spends a third of her income on water. "But you have to keep the children clean."

As hard as it is to conceive, people come to La Saline to escape rural misery. In the Central Plateau town of Cange, doctors with the Zanmi Lasante clinic said children commonly died from malaria or diarrhea, while tuberculosis and AIDS killed their parents. Even polio, once thought to have been eradicated, has resurfaced recently.

Although the clinic receives no international aid, doctors said they worked with many Haitian government clinics in nearby villages where the frozen aid has left them unable to cope. In recent years, their volunteer clinic's patient load has tripled to 120,000, with patients sometimes walking five hours for free care.

Dr. Paul Farmer, an American who helped found the clinic in the 1980's, said he could not prove that the blocked aid resulted in more suffering, but the deteriorating conditions were evident. International aid, provided on an emergency basis to charitable groups, was no substitute for a working government, he said.

"One of the world's most powerful countries is taking on one of the most impoverished," he said of the United States decision to withhold aid. "I object to that on moral grounds. Anybody who presides over this blockade needs to know the impact here already."

But Haiti's record of official corruption and mismanagement, regardless of who was in power, has given pause to many international aid officials. A recent study by the World Bank concluded that 15 years of aid through 2001 had had no discernible impact in reducing poverty, since projects were carried out haphazardly and government officials did not sustain improvements.

Today, for instance, a maze of rat-infested pipes is all that is left of a potable water project after funds ran out before the pipes could be connected to the water main.

At the same time, political opponents and diplomats said, the government has money to provide cars for legislators or pay off neighborhood groups that are its foot soldiers and that, the opposition charges, have been used to intimidate government opponents.

As a result, diplomats and aid officials said Mr. Aristide must not only resolve his political crisis, he must also show that he will allow economic and administrative reforms to guarantee that any forthcoming aid will be honestly spent.

"We are saying we want to help you," said a European diplomat, who noted that the European Union was ready to provide $350 million. "But you must help us help you. You comply, I'll comply."

Absent any aid or a political pact, people scrape by as they have for years, sharing what little they have or sacrificing themselves for their children. In the neighborhood of Fort Sinclaire, a dilapidated maze of shacks, indigent teenagers with tuberculosis sleep on sheets spread out on hard concrete porches.

A soft carpet of soggy wood chips blankets the entrance to the neighborhood, as men carve wooden bowls to sell to tourists who have yet to return to Haiti. Lionel Agustain, a woodworker, sometimes earns two dollars a day, not enough to prevent him from losing his home a few years ago.

A friend lets him sleep on a rickety cot inside a gym where the weights are improvised from gears and other car parts. The walls are tauntingly decorated with wrinkled posters of bodybuilders with bulging chests and biceps. Mr. Agustain is thin, and he sometimes eats only a bowl of rice.

"We don't know when they are going to fix things," he said. "We suffer. And when you suffer enough, you die."

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