- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Many Haitians thought they had hit rock bottom in February, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from power amid an armed revolt fueled by political conflict and economic collapse.

But a new interim government has been unable to keep conditions from deteriorating further in the hemisphere’s poorest nation, despite the presence of a peacekeeping mission from the United Nations.

Violence has wracked the capital, Port-au-Prince, since Sept. 30, when several thousand Aristide supporters staged a demonstration that was broken up when police fired into the crowd.

Since then, gunfire has crackled through the downtown most days and the streets are unusually silent at night, as frightened residents hurry indoors at dusk. Haitian police and U.N. troops raid pro-Aristide slums, clashing with gangs of young men in gunfights that have left dozens — and possibly hundreds — dead, many of them innocents caught in the crossfire.

The violence has buffeted an already moribund economy. Rising prices and a devalued gourde, the Haitian currency, have especially hammered the poor.

To make matters worse, Haiti has suffered two natural disasters this year, with thousands dying in mudslides and floods.

The country, where 56 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to a recent U.N. report, is getting poorer.

“The government has done nothing in the areas of job creation, production, public works,” said Jean-Claude Paulvin, president of the Haitian Association of Economists.

“To their credit, they’ve only been there for eight months, and they’ve put most of their energy into getting help from the international community. … My concern is that if the political situation stays the same, if there is no security, the economy will not take off even with international aid.”

Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has criticized the international community for not supplying enough troops and money to quell unrest and to revive the economy.

About 4,500 soldiers and 1,200 police officers have joined the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, short of the promised 6,700 soldiers and 1,622 police. U.N. officials say these goals will be reached by the end of the year.

But promises of international aid have proved largely empty. Although U.N. vehicles and blue-helmeted soldiers are ubiquitous on Port-au-Prince’s main thoroughfares, few Haitians have seen the development and job creation forecast in a more than $1 billion aid plan announced by the international community in July.

“We all think it could go faster than it has gone so far,” said Adama Guindo, the U.N. official overseeing development and humanitarian assistance in Haiti.

Mr. Latortue has accused Aristide supporters of trying to destabilize the government. Leaders from Mr. Aristide’s Lavalas party say they are being persecuted to ensure they will not participate in elections slated for next year.

Some hard-liners are calling for an even tougher stance.

“Shoot them and ask questions later,” said Jean Philippe Sassine, the Latortue-appointed assistant mayor of Port-au-Prince.

“Right now our country needs security. Unless you clean up the bad people, the gangs, there will be no progress. It will be a massacre, people will die. But let us do it, or it will be worse.”

Former soldiers who control much of the countryside, and who have turned a Port-au-Prince apartment complex into a temporary military base, warn they will take matters into their own hands if the government does not allow them to wipe out the Aristide supporters. The ex-soldiers are calling for the restoration of Haiti’s military, a force known for its corruption and brutality that Mr. Aristide disbanded in 1995.

“If the government doesn’t take responsibility, we will take it,” said ex-army Sgt. Remissainthe Ravix, a leader of the former soldiers.

Government and U.N. officials have rebuffed such entreaties. At the same time, Haitian police and U.N. forces have avoided confronting the former soldiers, while they have led frequent raids in search of pro-Aristide gangs in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

But in a move indicating U.N. recognition that force alone will not solve the conflict, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said it was “absolutely necessary” for Lavalas to participate in the elections. In addition, Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva said he would send an emissary to visit Mr. Aristide in South Africa.

Although many Lavalas leaders are either in jail or in exile, the party continues to command strong support from Haiti’s poor, who say that as bad as they might have been under Mr. Aristide, they are worse off now.

“There is no solution to Haiti’s problems without Aristide,” said Mark Bazin, a former World Bank economist who was Haiti’s prime minister from 1992 to 1993.

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