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Eyeing tourism, Haiti battles its violent reputation

Once a popular destination, it sees few tourists despite UN data that indicate country is among the region's safest.

By Reed LindsayContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2008

Field trip: Students visit The Citadel fortress. Haiti sees few tourists despite UN data that indicate it is among the region's safest countries.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

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PortAuPrince, Haiti

Kidnappings, gang violence, drug trafficking, corrupt police, flaming road blockades.

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The reports out of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere are enough to keep the most adventurous traveler away.

But according to security experts and officials from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti is no more violent than any other country in Latin America.

"It's a big myth," says Fred Blaise, spokesman for the UN police force in Haiti. "Port-au-Prince is no more dangerous than any big city. You can go to New York and get pickpocketed and held at gunpoint. The same goes for cities in Mexico or Brazil."

Haiti's negative image has devastated its economy, whose once-booming tourism industry is now limited largely to aid workers, peacekeepers, and diplomats.

But UN data indicate that the country could be among the safest in the region.

According to the UN peacekeeping mission, there were 487 homicides in Haiti last year, or about 5.6 per 100,000 people. A 2007 joint UN-World Bank study estimated the Caribbean's average murder rate at 30 per 100,000, with Jamaica registering nearly nine times as many murders – 49 homicides per 100,000 people – as those recorded by the UN in Haiti.

In 2006, the Dominican Republic notched more than four times as many homicides per capita than Haiti – 23.6 per 100,000, according to the Central American Observatory on Violence.

"There is not a large amount of violence [in Haiti]," argues Gen. Jose Elito Carvalho Siquiera, the Brazilian former commander of the UN force in Haiti. "If you compare the levels of poverty here with those of São Paolo or other cities, there is more violence there."

The UN peacekeeping mission, known as Minustah, arrived in June 2004, three months after US troops whisked former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in Africa amid an armed rebellion.

The de facto interim government, propped up by the UN, the United States, France, and Canada, launched a repressive campaign against Mr. Aristide's supporters, igniting two years of gunfights in Port-au-Prince's slums among gangs, Haitian police, and UN peacekeepers.

Meanwhile, a wave of kidnappings raised tensions, with Minustah registering 1,356 in 2005 and 2006.

"The kidnappings shocked everyone because they hadn't happened in the past," says Mr. Blaise. "Still, when you compare the number of kidnappings here, I don't think it's more than anywhere else."

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