Haiti Slips Towards Chaos

After a tumultuous week of political upheaval, the Caribbean nation of Haiti is quickly slipping towards chaos. While the mainstream American media hardly stops to take notice, violent revolution may soon descend on the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.Haiti's president, Rene Preval, announced on January 11 that he would dissolve the country's Parliament and appoint a new government by presidential decree. January 11 was the legal end-of-term date for the Parliament, but its 27 members had voted to indefinitely extend their terms. In reaction to Preval's announcement, most of the legislators -- who belong to parties that oppose Preval -- vowed that they would not relinquish their positions."Preval has staged a coup against our democratic institutions," declared Parliamentary leader Edgard Leblanc.The following day, riots erupted in the streets of Port-au-Prince, paralyzing the downtown government buildings. Truckloads of police arrived with automatic rifles to disperse the crowd and dismantle makeshift barricades. Shortly thereafter, two assassins sprayed scores of bullets at a car carrying Preval's sister, Marie-Claude Calvin, seriously wounding her and killing her chauffeur.On January 14, members of Preval's cabinet declared that the assassination attempt on Calvin had "political motivations" and pledged to bring the attackers to justice. Meanwhile, the combative opposition parties were making a public appeal to all Haitian citizens to "resist Preval's plans" at any cost. According to these parties, Preval and his political mentor -- former president Jean-Betrand Aristide -- are attempting to consolidate their power into a virtual dictatorship."A totalitarian government is just around the corner," Haitian Chamber of Commerce President Olivier Nadal told one BBC correspondent.Two days later, Preval's Minister of Finance suspended the bank accounts of most government officials, including opposing legislators and their aides. Four senators quickly retired, further exacerbating the already critical power vacuum. Though neither Preval nor his political opponents have voiced an explicit call to arms, both sides refuse to back down or seek compromise. Observers, both Haitian and abroad, fear that bloodshed may ensue.Political turmoil is nothing new to Haiti, which has seen four bloody coups and dozens of puppet dictators in its 200 year history. The country enjoyed a short-lived bout of political freedom in 1990, when Aristide -- a former Catholic priest who captured two thirds of the Haitian vote -- was swept into power by the grassroots "Lavalas" (literally, "landslide") movement. A military coup in 1991 sent Aristide into exile, but he was reinstated to the Presidency in 1994 with the help of the U.S. military. When his Presidential term ended in 1995, Aristide hand-picked Preval as his successor.Soon after Preval came to power, however, political squabbles began to fracture the once-strong Lavalas coalition. Former allies began to accuse the Preval-Aristide faction of power-grubbing and reneging on promises. Prime Minister Rosny Smarth resigned in protest in 1996, leaving the Parliament without an executive leader. Tension between Preval and the increasingly hostile Parliament soon escalated into a complete standstill, as legislators refused to ratify Preval's Prime Minister nominations. As a result, the Haitian government has passed no effective laws and has been without a budget for nearly two years.Not surprisingly, the economy has crumbled and government services do not exist. Unemployment hovers around 70 percent in the cities. The lucky few who find jobs make an average of $250 a year, but because of ridiculously high import tariffs, they pay about the same prices for goods as we do in the United States. Most Haitians live in a perpetual state of poverty -- although poverty isn't really an adequate word for their condition.While the U.S. government officially encourages an economic revival in Haiti, some observers say that our government has done more to keep Haitians poor than to aid them. Noam Chomsky, the prominent American intellectual, has argued that Haiti is little more than a U.S. colony, providing virtually free crops (sugar, rice, bananas), sweatshop labor (garment, textile and shoe factories) and an outlet for overpriced American goods (vehicles, oil, electronics). To maintain their enormous profits, multinational corporations need Haiti to stay poor. The U.S. government cooperates.In response to the current Haitian crisis, our government has voiced muted distress. Radio Haiti reported that President Clinton personally called Preval to express his sympathies about the assassination attempt on Calvin. The Dallas Morning Star reported that four ranking Republican congressmen wrote a letter urging the White House "to take stronger action" in Haiti -- which, the Republicans asserted, would best be done by cutting off all economic aid. How this would help solve anything, the Morning Star did not report.The United Nations response to the crisis has been equally uninspired. UN officials issued a resolution on January 18 asking for "credible and transparent elections soon," even though neither Preval nor his opponents have any desire to hold elections. Furthermore, Haiti has no infrastructure to support legitimate voting. Elections in 1996 were declared fraudulent because only seven percent of the population voted and ballot boxes were stuffed.While the political crisis mounts, Haiti's citizens continue to survive on an unusual source of revenue: Haitians living in the United States and Canada who send money back to family members and friends. According to a New York Times estimate, that revenue will add up to $500 million to $700 million this year -- more than double the entire Haitian government's budget. While they would rather have adequate jobs and a stable government, Haitians acknowledge that many would die of hunger without this foreign support -- especially in times of massive upheaval.As this article went to press, both Preval and his opponents were calling for public protests against the other side's actions. Some legislators are rallying to bring Preval before a criminal tribunal and try him for dissolving the Parliament. Most government officials have walked off their jobs, teachers plan to shut down their schools and students are staging street protests in the large cities. A wave of political refugees is already descending on Florida -- the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that police found 21 Haitian refugees wading ashore on January 20 after being dropped off by a smuggling craft. The number of refugees will almost certainly increase if fighting breaks out in Haiti.While all Haitian officials claim to be seeking a non-violent resolution, some of their rhetoric has edged toward the inflammatory. Evans Paul, an influential opposition party leader, captured the combative mood in an interview on Haiti's Radio Metropole."We think it is necessary to have a general strike to tell Rene Preval, 'No, we disagree with the presidential coup d'etat,'" said Paul. "We will fight forcefully to put democracy back on the right track."Tate Hausman is a freelance writer who travels to Haiti with the Haitian People's Support Project, a non-profit organization that provides training and funds to schools, orphanages, clinics and economic cooperatives in Haiti. For more information, write to Pierre LeRoi, Director, 74 Broad Street, West Hurley, New York, 12491, or call 914.679.7320.

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