Thursday, May 18, 2000

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti Perched on a tiny stool in the blazing midday sun with a wide basket in her lap, Jeanette’s face beams as she makes her first and probably only sale of the day three bottles of nail polish to a passing teen-ager.

The 75-cent profit means her two children and jobless husband will eat a small portion of rice with a few vegetables for dinner, their only meal of the day. In a good week, she takes home $3.

“If I get greedy, I can eat a week’s profit myself in a single day,” said Jeanette, 26, a mother of two, who did not want her surname used.

The plight of Jeanette and the throngs of street vendors who line up each day, three deep, pushing into traffic is becoming increasingly desperate as Haiti’s economy spirals downward.

In a nation where most people scrape by on less than $1 a day, the promise of democratic government after decades of dictatorships once gave people hope the misery would end.

With Haiti’s first free elections in 1990 came dreams of a chance to earn a living, to send children to school and to eat more than a single meal a day. Now, with parliamentary elections Sunday, the hope is fading.

American troops, who restored democracy in 1994 by bringing then-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to power, are gone. Unemployment stands at 60 percent, leaving Haiti on par with some of the poorest nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Violence has mushroomed in recent months. Thugs claiming to act in Mr. Aristide’s name have murdered 15 opposition party candidates in the past two months.

Some $500 million in foreign aid remains in limbo, cut off after Mr. Aristide’s successor, President Rene Preval, dismissed parliament in September, 1999, and began ruling by decree.

Even if the elections prove a success, by installing a new government and ending the freeze in outside aid, analysts are doubtful that much will change.

U.S. officials fear that, as economic conditions deteriorate, large numbers of refugees will once again take off in rickety boats bound for Miami as they did during the years when Mr. Aristide was in exile.

Yesterday, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 44 Haitians and two journalists from a boat sinking in Bahamian waters. The reporters were working for the New York Times on a free-lance basis, according to a spokesman for the newspaper in New York.

Many Haitians say they are afraid to vote on Sunday, fearing a repeat of 1987 election violence when army thugs sprayed polling places with bullets, killing at least 30.

Private economists complain that Mr. Preval’s government has made little progress in modernizing the country in the past four years.

“We have a lot of people doing business in the street. We call it ‘debouye,’ meaning, ‘We will find something to do anyway,’ ” said Kesner Pharel, an economist and consultant in Port-au-Prince.

“There’s plenty of commerce, but no value is added. There are no financial markets, no way to finance an investment,” Mr. Pharel said.

Superficially at least, conditions have improved from the coup years of 1991-94, when Mr. Aristide was in exile, lobbying Washington to put him back in office.

At the time, the nation reeled under a U.S. embargo. Service stations closed and vendors sold gasoline on the street out of Coca-Cola bottles for the equivalent of $10 a gallon. When U.S. forces came, children swarmed trash dumps to lick the inside of so-called “meals ready to eat” that had been consumed by American troops.

Today, modern gas stations with air-conditioned convenience stores have begun to crop up around the capital, now clogged with traffic.

But a drive of just a few miles through the city center can take hours, as cars dodge potholes caked with mud from the nightly rains, past the stalls overflowing with soap, shiny, aluminum pots and faded, second-hand clothes.

Mr. Aristide, whom many believe continues to run the country through his hand-picked successor, Mr. Preval, romanticizes such scenes in his recent book, “Eyes of the Heart, Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization.”

In it, the Haitian roadside market serves as the nexus for Mr. Aristide’s vision of economic prosperity: “This is the center; social, political and economic life roll together.”

“This simplistic thinking bothers me,” said Mr. Pharel, who studied economics at George Washington University in Washington. “It makes for good reading, but it’s not enough.”

“We need $2 billion just to build the needed infrastructure. All the money in Haiti, including bank deposits, is less than half that amount,” he said.

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