Haitians' Hopes Remain Stowed In Rickety Boats

Coast Guard cutters are trying to hold off a new seaborne exodus of Haitians, but their desire to flee their country hasn't been stemmed

`MY father sold the family's cow to buy me a ticket on a boat going to Miami," Jusnele Frandala said minutes after he was returned by a US Coast Guard cutter to Port-au-Prince. "But we never made it."

Mr. Frandala and 137 of his neighbors had crammed into a flimsy 50-foot wooden boat in an attempt to flee Haiti last month, but they were picked up after two days at sea. "Now I have to go back home to Leogane and tell my father that I failed," the forlorn Haitian says, holding back tears.

That same day in Leogane, a town about 40 miles south of the capital, workmen were hammering out four new boats which could be used by those hoping to succeed in the risky 600-mile journey to the coast of Florida. Since the September 1991 Army coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the beaches of this small coastal town have become a major jumping-off point for fleeing Haitians.

Despite a campaign promise to rescind the order to intercept Haitian boat people, President Clinton has stepped up the Coast Guard's presence while also pursuing negotiations to restore Haitian democracy. Wave of refugees

The overthrow of President Aristide, a fiery Roman Catholic priest who is wildly popular among Haiti's impoverished masses, precipitated the flight in rickety vessels of more than 40,000 Haitians - 10,500 of whom have been allowed to seek asylum in the United States. According to the Coast Guard, in January alone more than 500 people left Leogane in at least six vessels. Like Frandala, they have all been repatriated.

Leogane is in many ways a typical Haitian town. For decades people here have made their living by fishing or growing sugar, potatoes, or other crops and selling their goods in the capital. Recently, however, many of its most desperate citizens have sold their land to buy $150 tickets on fishing boats that are used to flee the island.

"People are escaping Leogane because they are desperate," says Marie Elta St. Juste, the town's mayor. "There are no jobs here. Parents cannot send their kids to school. Many just cannot feed their children."

Walking through the garbage-filled streets of Leogane, one can see youngsters with swollen bellies and reddish hair, two signs of malnutrition. The independent Center for Development and Health estimates that in certain areas of the country 60 percent of the children under the age of five do not receive an adequate diet. Disheartened residents

Many older residents complain they have not had enough to eat regularly for weeks. Others point out they are too weak or disheartened to go out in the streets and try to find a job.

"If a man does not provide for his family, he is useless," says Jean Marc Exume, a father of four who recently failed in his third attempt to reach the US. "I cannot provide for my kids, so I will keep on trying until I get to America and can send some money back to my wife."

In contrast, the town's marketplace is teeming with merchants exhibiting cooking oil, milk, and fruits. But buyers must try to bargain down daily increases in prices. According to Mayor St. Juste, the one-year-old economic embargo imposed on the island by the Organization of American States is suffocating many of her constituents.

The hemisphere-wide embargo was imposed to protest the ouster of Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, and to force the Army to allow his return.

"The embargo has made the poor poorer," she says. "People got by with very little before, but now prices have doubled and even tripled and they keep going up every day."

The people living in the small fishermen's community of Beloc, a few miles from Leogane, are also feeling crushing hardships.

"There is nothing to do here," says Oriol Atisme. "We used to haul charcoal and cargo from beach to beach along the coast with our boats, but now there is no more business."

Mr. Atisme, who has also tried and failed to flee Haiti by boat, admits that all of the residents of Beloc are pooling their savings to pay for the construction of a new boat that will take some of them to the US. Seeking `a better life'

"This boat will be ready in three weeks," he says, pointing to a half-finished rough-hewn wooden vessel. "Some will leave to find a better life and send back money to all of us."

Asked if they would be deterred by the US ships patrolling the seas, however, Atisme answered: "No, we will find a different way to get to Miami, a way around the Coast Guard."

Others in Leogane, a traditional pro-Aristide stronghold, cited terror and political persecution as their principal reason for leaving. Many say they are yearning for the return of Aristide, and that a new exodus could be prompted if negotiations do not secure his return soon.

"I'm fleeing repression," says Gary Feras, a boyish-faced jobless youth living with relatives in the outskirts of Leogane. "I am not home with my parents because I fear the military. The Macoutes don't like me," he says, referring to the repressive militia of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Mr. Feras says he is considering fleeing on one of the town's boats. "I love Haiti," he says, "but if things don't get better, I will get on a boat."

The town's former priest was arrested by the military for speaking from the pulpit on behalf of Aristide. But his replacement is an equally outspoken advocate of the poor.

"The military randomly arrest people to show they are in charge," he says. "Most people here voted for Fr. Aristide. Now that he is gone they have lost all hope. Until Aristide comes back, they will continue to flee."

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