US Forced to Break Fuel Embargo in Haiti

AS Haiti's military-backed government again asserts its power - this time, by refusing to release a shipment of fuel earmarked by the United Nations for humanitarian aid - Haitians' feelings deepen that United States policy is as washed-out and ineffective as the flattened sandbags supposedly protecting government buildings in Port-au-Prince.

In Tuesday's regularly scheduled press conference in the capital, US Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager was in the uncomfortable position of admitting that the US may bust the very embargo it is using as a tool to resolve Haiti's three-year-old crisis.

The US is considering buying black-market fuel, he said, so that it can deliver food to the more than 1 million served by its feeding program. An official in the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington yesterday confirmed the agency would buy fuel on the black market if needed.

Nearly 200,000 gallons of the 550,000 gallons of trapped fuel (already paid for in part by the US), is slated for the USAID feeding program. Unless the fuel is released soon, the feeding program will grind to a halt.

``This feeding program is crucial to us,'' Mr. Schrager explained at the briefing. ``And we're not going to let the program die. So we'll do what we have to do to keep the program at least at the level it is now. We can't let these people starve.''

Much of the fuel sold on the booming black market comes from the neighboring Dominican Republic, where a gallon of gasoline is now hovering at about $8.

Buying on the black market

The US has been breaking the oil embargo since sanctions were re-imposed last year by buying contraband fuel for Embassy cars and generators. But if the US were to buy the amount of fuel necessary to keep USAID programs running, it could cost them at least $1,635,250 each month.

``It's a bad situation,'' Schrager said as his only defense of the possibility of increasing the amount of black-market fuel the US buys.

Just as the Haitian military has successfully stayed in power by dilatory tactics, the de facto government has led nongovernmental organizations to believe that they would soon release the July 21 shipment of fuel. But after weeks of delay, many here suspect this is just a show by the local government to force the international community to recognize it.

``The only reason they're playing this game is to force us to deal with them,'' one Western diplomat says.

Others intimate that the military-backed rulers have already begun siphoning off the much-coveted fuel for themselves.

The fuel - distributed by the Pan-American Development Foundation to 218 ``carefully vetted'' relief organizations - is designated for public institutions such as schools and hospitals to support food and water distribution, health care, and educational programs.

The now-average monthly shipment of 550,000 gallons is equivalent to what was one day's normal supply in Haiti before the embargo, according to an USAID officer.

The Atlanta-based relief organization CARE, which uses 1,500 gallons of fuel a day to feed nearly 600,000 Haitians in the northwest of the country, has only enough fuel for another 10 days.

``It's a finite situation,'' admitted CARE director Phil Gelman. ``If we have no fuel, we stop.''

Feeding via embargoed fuel

``The US policy is 50 percent good, 50 percent bad,'' one foreign official says. ``On one hand, they are participating in enforcing the embargo, and on the other hand, they are breaking it to serve their own purposes. Is the US aware that, while people are starving, they are lining the pockets of unscrupulous dealers - mainly military to military?''

A handful of people, including Haitian military and Dominican Republic border guards, is allegedly making millions of dollars on what Schrager euphemistically refers to as the ``spot market.''

Meanwhile, the US just signed an agreement last month with the Dominican Republic to tighten the embargo by permitting 80 multinational observers to patrol the border. To date, the United Nations has not deployed the monitors, although some Canadians and Americans are making daily border trips.

Haiti's currency also plunged to a new low on Tuesday, trading at 20 gourdes to the dollar. In response, the central bank there moved to halt panic selling by banning dollar transactions and restricting credit.

The United States has also not resolved the problem of moving more than 1,000 people with approved political asylum status out of the country. And the number of Haitians approved as refugees is increasing at about 100 a week. Schrager says the US is making progress on that front. He sidesteps defining ``progress,'' though, a word that has lost much of its credibility because of the converse relationship it has with fundamental change in the crisis situation.

``How many times did we hear the Governors Island Accord is Haiti's best and last chance,'' grumbled one long-time journalist, referring to the July 1993 aborted agreement that would have allowed exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to power last October.

``It became too embarrassing for them to keep harping on that a year later, so they're using new stock phrases. They are just [trying] to keep the egg off their face,'' the journalist says.

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