BOSTON — IF United States troops storm the crescent-moon tropical beaches of Haiti, they won't find the ``pearl of the Antilles,'' as the French once dubbed the tiny isle of Hispaniola. They'll be walking into what a Canadian aid worker calls ``the basket case of the hemisphere.''
By almost every measure, Haiti ranks at the bottom of the region's development list. The 1991 military coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the economic embargo have only exacerbated the poverty, malnutrition, and violence.
Some 7 million Creole-speaking descendants of African slaves are shoehorned into an area the size of Maryland, making Haiti one of the most densely populated countries in the hemisphere. Health care is abysmal. Life expectancy is among the region's shortest (53 years for men) and infant mortality among the highest (110 per 1,000), according to United Nations reports. Only 1 in 4 eligible children goes to primary school. More than half of the adult population cannot read.
Haiti is the hemisphere's poorest nation. Per capita income - before the embargo - was less than $400 a year. There are exceptions as evidenced by the posh homes in the hills of Petionville at the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince, where the backers of Haitian strongman Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras live. They are the business and military elite who make up less than 1 percent of the population but control almost half of Haiti's meager wealth. US law enforcement agencies say some Haitian military leaders line their pockets by allowing the island to be used as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine bound for the US.
Haiti's military prowess is no better than its economic progress. The 7,000 soldiers and police are poorly trained, underpaid, ill-equipped. Only about half the troops are stationed in the capital - the likely focus of any US invasion.
An initial US assault wouild likely target the police and military headquarters, airfields, and the headquarters of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), an anti-Aristide paramilitary group often linked to human rights abuses. Jungle guerrilla warfare is unlikely since the ragged mountains around the capital have long since been stripped of trees.
But Haiti's history - from French colonial jewel to economic junk heap - hasn't always been quite as tragic. The island of Hispaniola was discovered by Christopher Columbus and later populated by African slaves. In 1697, Spain ceded the western half of the island to France. A slave revolt led to Haitian independence from France in 1804, making Haiti the second-oldest republic in the hemisphere and, as one anthropologist put it, ``the first black republic of the modern world.''
But for the next century, Haiti was governed by dictators. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent in US Marines to protect US business interests. The forces stayed until 1934. This time, President Clinton promises, US troops would ``come home in months, not years.''
Haiti was relatively stable in the decades after the US occupation, even enjoying a period as a fashionable tourist spot for the wealthy. But in 1957, Francois ``Papa Doc'' Duvalier rose to power and ruled through terror with a private militia known as the Tonton Macoutes. He was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier, who was deposed in a popular uprising in 1986.
After several military-backed regimes, Fr. Aristide was elected by 67 percent of the voters in 1990 in what is considered the first free and fair democratic election in Haiti. But the leftist priest began attacking drug trafficking and corruption - engaged in by the military and former ruling elite. The Army staged a coup. Aristide, not a Washington favorite, fled to the US. Human rights organizations estimate 3,000 people have been killed since Aristide was ousted.
If Aristide returns, international donors have pledged $1 billion in aid. But given the depth of Haitian poverty, the money will only begin to set the nation back on its feet. Peacekeeping troops from 24 nations will be sent in to train new security forces and keep order until the next elections, scheduled for early 1996.