Perennial Haitian exodus widens

Writing about Haiti as a failed state has become commonplace. Every few months a coup, an assassination, a political massacre shocks the sensibilities of news desks and editors and - for a nanosecond - Haiti makes the front page with rote descriptions of violence, poverty, and death. Then it drifts to the back page and out of consciousness.

Since the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, the pendulum has swung from bright moments of genuine hope to the dark despair of insecurity and instability. But today it appears to have stopped swinging. In spite of the 7,600 UN peacekeepers stationed there, more than 800 people (including 40 policemen) have died in street violence in the past year - 200 in June alone. And kidnappings for ransom - of men, women, and children, rich and poor alike - have become an almost daily event.

Because of the insecurity, once again an exodus is under way. This time it's not just the sad stream of boat people that spikes at moments of peak political or economic stress, nor is it the class of bourgeoisie that has always had the financial means to live abroad. It's the heart and soul of Haiti, the solid citizens who represent the last surviving foundations of civil stability who, despite past national traumas, vowed to stick it out in their homeland but are now packing their bags for the first time. It's the lower middle class (laborers) and the solid middle class (shopkeepers and entrepreneurs) - the people who had a genuine economic stake in Haiti's future. After years of being knocked down by the fall of one government and rising up to the promises of the next, these patriotic and loyal Haitians can no longer find a reason to be optimistic about that stake. These are the people jamming outgoing flights of airlines that fly in nearly empty to Port-au-Prince.

The most personal example I can offer is my Haitian husband, leader of one of Haiti's most popular street bands. For seven years he's shuttled back and forth from our home in Port-au-Prince to our home in Miami; but for the past two months, since narrowly escaping death after being sought by armed gunmen of a rival band who claimed he should have been more politically vocal, he's been shuttling back and forth across our living room, wondering if he can ever return to his old life, or play music with his band again.

Then there's my Haitian mechanic friend who recently went into debt to send his wife and three children to the US. He lives just south of the National Palace, an area known for bustling street activity and blaring music from buses. For the last four months he's not had a single client come to his garage, and the street remains eerily silent because of the rash of recent kidnappings.

A local street vendor of fried food I used to buy from was abducted this summer and then released for a ransom of $100 - the equivalent of several month's of income for her. But an elementary-school-age child of friends of mine was kidnapped and only returned home after his middle-class family scraped together every last dime they had and could borrow to pay the $30,000 ransom. They also had to hand over their new SUV.

Those are just the happy endings: Not everyone returns unscathed, or alive.

A UNICEF dispatch denouncing the insecurity cited a case of an 11-year-old girl who, because her family was unable to pay a ransom, was blinded. And last month, the respected Haitian journalist and poet, Jacques Roche, was kidnapped and murdered - and his tongue was cut out. His assassination barely brushed the pages of the international newspapers.

Times are so critical that my two closest Haitian friends - middle-class people who I always thought of as part of Haiti's poto mitan (the center pole of the voodoo temples) are also seriously contemplating leaving Haiti for the first time in the turbulence of the past 20 years. One, who runs a small handicrafts business, has already been to the Dominican Republic scouting future employment possibilities. The other, a construction entrepreneur, is spending the summer in the safety of the US to figure out what his next step should be.

Many journalists have already left, as have aid workers. The Peace Corps has been sent home and the US, as well as Canada and France, has asked all non-essential personnel to leave.

The US policy mantra has always been that democratic elections will cure Haiti's ills - there have been nearly a dozen changes of government with only three democratic presidential elections since 1986.This fall, Haitians are to vote in local, legislative, and presidential elections. It's too soon to know if the electorate will participate or if they are registering only because the voter ID cards they receive will soon be mandatory for routine transactions. A change of governments will produce new figureheads and new headlines, but Haitians have less reason than ever to believe it will alleviate their poverty - some of the worst in the Western Hemisphere - or contribute to security and stability.

Haiti's only democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced to leave the country during both of his terms as president. His party, Family Lavalas, is probably the only party that has enough votes to win - but its partisans are accused of committing much of the violence strangling the nation. With chaos the norm, it's hard to say who in Haiti is ultimately responsible for the country's anarchy - or who could handle the responsibility of stabilizing the country.

But if and when Haitians go to the polls, they must do so with faith in the system and not in the supreme reign of an individual. Although they've never had reason to believe in the system, it's not too late to try to instill such a belief. It will take supreme faith, a cast of altruistic candidates, and an international community that promises to be there for the long haul. Unless that happens, the Haitian exodus is bound to swell and rob the country of the very people the nation needs for stability.

Kathie Klarreich's new book - a memoir of her years covering Haiti for the Monitor and other news organizations - is 'Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou, and Civil Strife in Haiti.'

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