Fairy tale or nightmare in Haiti?

To most Haitians, the splendor of President Jean Claude Duvalier's regime is like a fairy tale -- but for many of them it is a cruel one. When he married in May the Haitian leader flew thousands of flowers from Florida to bedeck the church. A lavish lobster feast was spread for nuptial guests at his ranch. Bands played so friends and foreign dignitaries could dance the night away. The tab, according to reports, rang in at about $2 million.

It's style of life few Haitians enjoy -- the ordinary Hatian is so poor he can barely afford a bouquet on his wedding day. And it is symptomatic of the style in which the 29-year-old President for Life runs his government.

Although 80 percent of Haitians live in the countryside, most of them in abject poverty on tiny 3-acre plots farmed with "stone age" cultivation methods. Jean Claude Duvalier's Department of Agriculture has done little to edge them on toward modernity.

The government has accepted millions of dollars from foreign governments each year for agricultural development -- but lenders complain that too much of this benefits the bigger farmers or goes into officials' pockets. Little progress has been noted. And little, if anything, appears to have been done to combat pervasive malnutrition.

President Duvalier tends to be kind to loyal friends -- to the security police (Volunteers for National Security or VNS), the "dinosaurs" (old cronies of the President's powerful, late father), and a tiny middle and upper class.

But those without government links have to move cautiously. When constitutional rights are suspended, as they generally are for the nine months of the year the legislature is in recess, the VNS have been known to be particularly heavy-handed.

Graft and corruption are persistent problems, and international aid agencies cite them as major roadblocks to economic progress.

One anthropologist involved in an Agency for International Development effort to curb this says sometimes as little as 10 percent of an aid project's dollars seems to reach their target. Other US officials say the picture is improving; that today a good 75 percent is getting to the target.

Whatever the exact figure, it seems especially callous, observers say, that this happens in the nation with the poorest, most illiterate, and probably worst-nourished citizens in the Western Hemisphere.

Reflecting on the president's wedding, a keen observer of Haiti said angrily, "It's a crime. A crime the President had that multimillion-dollar wedding in such an impoverished country."

There are matters in President Duvalier's domain, however, that that observer and others feel are more seriously "criminal" than the wedding, the graft, and the diverted development funds:

* Reports of torture and death at the hands of the security police -- for minor infractions or simply for opposition to the government -- are numerous.

A US State Department "country report" on Haiti issued in February says there are "plausible reports of severe beatings and torture by electric shock administered to opposition political activists." The OAS report on Haiti includes 20 pages listing scores of persons it believes were tortured or murdered from 1974 to the present.

The human-rights situation has improved somewhat recently, the OAS commission and State Department say. But Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization, says in its own report on Haiti: "We are convinced that political imprisonment and torture still take place."

Amnesty refers to one of the most recent and notorious cases of such imprisonment, that of Sylvio Claude. He was arrested late last year shortly after starting the Haitian Christian Democratic Party, one of the first opposition political parties to surface in 22 years. He has not been heard from since his arrest.

* Authoritarianism has started to increase again, rather than lessening.

Although it is clear President Duvalier has proved more benevolent than Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, hsi father (who quite literally eliminated many opponents in a period to brutal that much of the world cut off aid and ties), "Baby Doc" himself has turned the screws a bit tighter recently.

In April he reinstated a ban on criticizing and writing uncomplimentary things about the President and his mother. At the end of 1979, in one of Haiti's frequent Cabinet reshuffles, President Duvailer restored some of his father's cronies to power. He also has called back some of the Ton Ton Macoutes , police his father used so effectively to quash opposition.

As if a warning, a November meeting of the Haitian League for Human Rights was broken up, with several injuries and arrests. Says the OAS report: "It may be said that freedom of inquiry, opinion, speech, and dissemination of thought does not exist."

This is the political and economic background to the exodus of Haitians in rickety, sometimes sinking boats to the United States, the Bahamas, and Caribbean nations this year. The island has long seen its people leave for more prosperous or peaceful havens, but the process seems to have accelerated again this year.

It is the special tragedy of the fleeing Haitians that their lives -- in the United States, at least -- have been little better in some respects than they were in Haiti.

Washing up on Florida shores, most go to live with their countrymen in a section of Miami known as "Little Haiti." So many people share their quarters there that many sleep in shifts around the clock. Many Floridians intially had welcomed the Haitians, who are willing to work hard for very low wages in area citrus groves. But the overwhelming flow of Cubans this spring changed this.

Prominent US blacks and civil-rights advocates, who had long despaired over the treatment of Haitians in the US, charged "racism" was apparent in the different treatment accorded Haitians compared with the Cubans.

Cubans entering the US were given 3-by-5 "I-94" cards marked "asylum applicant." They were sent to processing camps.

Haitians' I-94 cards were marked "exclusion" or "deportation" proceeding. And they were left to find their own way around immigration offices. Worse, many of the Haitians thought, were the summary proceedings they were given before immigration judges, which usually ended in deportation decisions.

Earlier this month US District Court Judge James L. King called the procedures for Haitians "unlawful discrimination" by the INS. He issued a court order giving the INS 90 days to rehear petitions of 5,000 Haitians in deportation proceedings.

For its part, the Carter administration says the different treatment given Cubans and Haitians is justified because the Cubans fled a repressive and communist government, while the Haitians simply fled poverty.

Judge King wrote that the evidence in his court proves the administration wrong. The evidence shows, he said, the Haitian government is "repressive" and that Haitians would be treated extremely harshly if the US sent them back to Haiti.

In June, President Carter gave a six-month reprieve on deportation to both Haitians involved in deportation proceedings and Cubans. In the six months, the President presumably will introduce legislation to allow the Cubans and Haitians to stay in the US.

The Haitian community, however, fears this will not cover those here illegally. The State Department estimates there may be 100,000 to 30,000 illegal Haitian immigrants in the US.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.