Haiti's elusive search for unity

Wednesday, US marines pledged to help disarm Haitian rebels.

At the dusty Telele open-air market in a hilltop section of the Haitian capital, women with blackened hands and feet sell small bundles of charcoal from huge baskets brimming with Haiti's traditional cooking fuel.

Though the hillsides for miles around are stripped of all trees - less than 5 percent of forest cover remains in this once-lush "pearl of the Caribbean" - the custom of cooking with charcoal continues.

"We know the charcoal causes deforestation," says Charles Jean-Remy, a charcoal merchant. "But it's been this way so long that no one knows what to do about it."

The disaster of charcoal's production and use in Haiti is symbolic of a failed state where many average Haitians understand the elements that keep their nation of 8 million in recurring crises but few seem to know how to stop the cycle.

The lack of progress is explained by failings both at home and internationally. Haiti's gap between a small business elite and masses of slave-descendant poor is one of the world's most severe. International aid has exacerbated problems, perpetuating a culture of dependency and feeding intense political divisions in the name of promoting democracy.

Haiti also offers lessons at a time when the global impact of failed states - from terrorism to contraband trafficking - is commanding new attention. But at its root, Haiti's tragedy is one of a deeply divided people.

"We have many deep problems, but at the bottom of all of them is the fact that we can't sit down together among Haitians to agree on something, some project or goals for our future," says Roromme Chantal, a Haitian with the United Nations Development Program in Port-au-Prince. "When today it's one government and tomorrow another one, there's no continuity. Every time we have to start over again."

Since Aristide's departure almost two weeks ago, Haiti has spiraled into deeper crisis. Violent protests this week are pitting pro- and anti-Aristide forces against some of the 1,500 US marines, 500 French soldiers, and other foreign troops who are here to secure the city. Following a month-long insurgency, US marines have agreed to help Haitian police disarm rebels.

Interim President Boniface Alexandre called on Haitians Monday to stop the violence, comparing the country to a boat. "If it sinks, we all sink together," he said. But few outside were getting the message.

Aristide supporters, who see the ousted president as the champion of the poor, say they will not rest until he returns. "We will not allow elections. We already have a democratically elected president who was kidnapped by the US on behalf of the rich and their Army," said Pierre-Louis Jean-Jacques, an electrician, as he chanted pro-Aristide slogans outside the presidential palace.

Hours later, anti-Aristide forces in the same location demanded Aristide's return - to face trial for corruption. Rebel leader Guy Philippe, who agreed under intense US pressure last week to have his militia lay down its arms, now says the armed fight will resume if the foreign forces do not quell the pro-Aristide violence.

The continuing turmoil after years of heightened attention to the Caribbean country has led to what some experts in the region openly call "Haiti fatigue" - the country is worse off for the world's focus.

A decade after Mr. Aristide returned to power with the support of 20,000 US marines and international aid, Haiti's social and political health - life expectancy, child mortality, education, access to clean water, food self-sufficiency, and class divides - has deteriorated. The country, experts say, is one of the world's worst environmental disasters.

Haiti had suffered 32 coups in its 200 years of independence before Aristide's hustled departure, a cycle of instability that seemed broken by Aristide's democratic election in 1990. He was toppled by a military coup a year later.

Today the political divisions reflecting the country's economic disparities are only deeper, say Haiti experts.

"Because the elite is so small and because of the way in which it has gained or held on to its power, it is fearful of any efforts to challenge the status quo," says Jennie Smith, a Haiti expert at Berry College in Georgia. "The polarizing, antirich rhetoric of an Aristide only exacerbates those fears."

Other factors also work against progress. The country has the highest AIDS infection rate outside sub-Saharan Africa, its national budget of $300 million is less than the budgets of many large US school districts, and a near absence of law enforcement has fostered a vigilante society.

Heavy US involvement and the way much international aid has been administered make matters worse, Ms. Smith says. The US has been deeply involved in Haiti since 1915, when it invaded and ran the country for almost a decade. More recently, US policy has been driven by fear of Haitian refugees and by a desire to spread its political and economic ideals.

Aristide lost much of his support at home by his failure to keep promises of democracy and his conversion into a corrupt autocrat, but the US made his road difficult, says Smith. In Haiti, as elsewhere in Latin America, she says, "when there is a leader who seems socialist in rhetoric, doesn't follow the edicts of the [International Monetary Fund], and mobilizes popular enthusiasm, it has been polarizing among US politicians."

After Haiti's 2000 elections, which the US and European Union deemed fraudulent, international aid was either cut back or redirected through NGOs. "Money ended up going more to opposition groups, and that gave the impression the aid was more for political goals than for development," says the UNDP's Mr. Chantal.

Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Human Rights, says aid groups should focus less on political reforms and more on building local institutions that can help tackle poverty. "We need structures to be put in place," he says. "We don't need any more saviors like Aristide."

Foreign aid groups have to be careful not to instill a "culture of dependence" as has happened in the past, Smith says.

Many Haitians say their society's deep divisions can be repaired only by their own hands. But the international community can help, they say, by sticking to the reform projects it starts - such as training and staffing a national police force, one of the goals after Aristide's return to power in 1994.

Not everyone is confident of better days ahead. Smith says she is "skeptical" that US priorities have changed over the past century. "I might feel different," she says, "if I thought US political and economic interests were not the No. 1 priority in US aid to Haiti."

The US ambassador here, James Foley, says the US will do things differently this time. The commitment, he argues, is for the "long haul."

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