PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti —
U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti say they are battling an image of fear that is keeping the Caribbean nation mired in hunger and disease, with little hope of attracting foreign visitors and investment.
Forbes magazine has named Haiti one of the world’s 10 most dangerous destinations, along with Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The Associated Press has called Port-au-Prince the kidnapping capital of the Americas.
The U.S. government maintains a perpetual travel warning on Haiti, while diplomats, journalists and aid workers spend much of their time holed up in fortified hotels.
The image stems largely from two violent years after the 2004 U.S. ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide when the slums of Port-au-Prince erupted in gunbattles between gangs, Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers, plus a wave of kidnappings.
Today, Haiti’s reputation is undeserved, say security analysts and officials from the U.N. peacekeeping mission. They argue that Haiti is no more violent than any other Latin American country.
“It’s a big myth,” said Fred Blaise, spokesman for the U.N. police force in Haiti. “Port-au-Prince is no more dangerous than any big city. You can go to New York and get pickpocketed and held at gunpoint.”
Reliable statistics are scarce in Haiti, but U.N. data indicate that the country could be among the safest in the region.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission recorded 487 homicides in Haiti last year, or about 5.6 per 100,000 people.
A U.N.-World Bank study last year estimated the Caribbean’s average homicide rate at 30 per 100,000, with Jamaica registering nearly nine times as many — 49 homicides per 100,000 people — as those recorded by the United Nations in Haiti.
In 2006, the neighboring Dominican Republic notched more than four times more homicides per capita than those registered in Haiti: 23.6 per 100,000, according to the Central American Observatory on Violence.
Even the United States would appear to have a higher homicide rate: 5.7 per 100,000 in 2006, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
“There is not a large amount of violence [in Haiti],” said Gen. Jose Elito Carvalho Siquiera, the former Brazilian commander of the U.N. military force in Haiti. “If you compare the levels of poverty here with those of Sao Paolo [Brazil] or other cities, there is more violence there than here.”
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as Minustah, arrived in Haiti in June 2004, three months after U.S. troops whisked Mr. Aristide into exile amid an armed rebellion.
The U.S.-backed interim government then waged a campaign against Mr. Aristide’s supporters, igniting two years of gunfights in Port-au-Prince’s slums.
A wave of kidnappings also swept panic through the capital. From 2005 until 2006, Minustah registered 1,356 kidnappings.
Kidnappings have become common in many Latin American countries, but were rare in Haiti before Mr. Aristide’s ouster.
“The kidnappings shocked everyone because they hadn’t happened in the past,” said Mr. Blaise, the U.N. police spokesman. “Still, when you compare the number of kidnappings here, I don’t think it’s more than anywhere else.”
Security improved markedly last year. The number of kidnappings dropped by nearly 70 percent, and the U.N. peacekeeping mission wrested control of Port-au-Prince’s battle-torn slums from armed groups.
President Rene Preval, elected in a landslide in February 2006, has mollified Haiti’s political opposition.
Gunshots are now seldom heard in Port-au-Prince. Violent crime in the countryside has always been rare. Attacks on foreigners are few and far between, and in recent months American Airlines flights from Miami to the capital have been packed with Christian missionaries and aid workers.
Even when the instability was at its peak, observers say, violence usually was limited to a few Port-au-Prince slums.
“If you compare Haiti to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Rwanda, we don’t even appear on the same scale,” said Patrick Elie, who heads a government commission studying the creation of a new security force.
“We’ve had a tumultuous history, that is true, one characterized by political instability,” said Mr. Elie. “But except for the war that we had to wage to obtain our freedom and independence from the French, Haiti has never known a level of violence comparable to that which has been waged in Europe, in America and the European countries in Africa and Asia. Our country has been one of the least violent.”
Viva Rio, a Brazilian-based violence reduction group that came to Haiti at the request of the U.N. mission’s disarmament program, has found Port-au-Prince’s armed groups more receptive than those in Rio de Janeiro’s slums.
Last March, the organization persuaded warring gangs in Bel Air and neighboring downtown slums to sign a peace treaty, in which they swore to abstain from violence in exchange for youth scholarships. Since then, the area has been peaceful.
“This would be unthinkable in Rio,” said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, Viva Rio’s director.
The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders classified the “raging violence” in Port-au-Prince as one of the world’s 10 most underreported stories in 2006. Even then, only one of every 10 patients at its trauma hospital was the victim of a bullet wound. Most had been injured in car crashes and domestic accidents.
“It’s not the insecurity, not the bullets, not the conflict between gangs and police,” said Yann Libessart, the former head of the Doctors Without Borders mission. “What’s killing people in Haiti is not being able to give birth to a baby in a hospital or not having access to medical care because they don’t have enough money to pay.”
While the international community has made security the priority, the dominant concern for most poor Haitians is the rising cost of food. The prices of staples such as rice and beans have nearly doubled in the past three years, a devastating trend in a country where about 80 percent of the population earns less than $2 a day.
“Our problem isn’t violence,” said Yvner Meneide, an artisan living in downtown Port-au-Prince. “If we were violent, we would organize demonstrations every day, we would be destroying things. But the Haitian people are very moderate. We might be hungry, but we are calm.”