Bitterness rises as Haitians wait impatiently for change
Gona"ives, Haiti — In the poorest part of the Western hemisphere's most impoverished nation, bitterness rises as hungry Haitians wait impatiently to see the fruits of their uprising against the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship. When President Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country last February, he left behind a nation with 80 percent illiteracy and unemployment. Haitians are increasingly bitter that they have seen no improvements since February. Nowhere is the neglect and decay of the Duvalier years more evident than in this crumbling seaport, 100 miles north of the capital.
Most of its 35,000 inhabitants have never had a proper job. They subsist from the sale of contraband and second-hand clothing bought in bulk in the United States.
Very little legitimate commerce passes through Gona"ives. Mr. Duvalier routed most of Haiti's trade through the capital, Port-au-Prince, where he could more easily exact the rake-offs for which his dictatorship is infamous.
The caretaker government which took over on Feb. 7 reopened the provincial ports, igniting a boom in smuggling, especially of cheap US rice. The boom also sparked what has become as known as Haiti's ``rice war.''
Rice bought or stolen in the US - ``Miami rice,'' as it is nicknamed here - sells at almost half the price of the home-grown product. Starving Haitians welcome it, but local growers, never well off, have been crippled by the illegal trade.
The government recently banned rice imports, seizing boats and raiding warehouses. But still the rice flows in.
In recent weeks, the farmers of Haiti's Artibonite Valley took the law into their own hands, barricading the northern highway, searching trucks, beating up drivers, and spilling their merchandise onto the road.
The Artibonite is one of the few fertile regions of a badly eroded land where centuries of uncontrolled tree-felling have blown away much of the top soil. Gona"ives is surrounded by a desert where giant cacti claw at the scorching sun.
An enraged mob from Gona"ives' waterside slum district of Raboteau attacked the valley farmers Saturday armed with clubs, machetes, underwater harpoon guns, and revolvers. In a pitched battle at the Artibonite market town of L'Estere, one man died - some reports said three - and dozens were wounded.
The local prefect issued a warrant for the arrest of the ringleaders, but here Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy's government faced not only a law-and-order problem but also a political dilemma as well.
Chief among the attackers was Jean Tantoune, who became a hero to Haiti's impoverished masses when he led the same crudely armed paupers of Raboteau against Duvalier's brutal militia - the now-disbanded Tonton Macoutes - inspiring the rest of Haiti to insurrection.
When soldiers came to arrest Mr. Tantoune and four of his followers last week, hundreds of his supporters erected barricades of burning tires to thwart the search among the warren of sorted mud huts near the dockside.
After a 24-hour standoff between demonstrators and troops, the town prosecutor withdrew the arrest warrants after consulting the higher authorities. Opposition groups seeking General Namphy's resignation have threatened to declare an alternative government in Gona"ives with Tantoune's backing.
The government's representative in Gona"ives, prefect Serge Brutus, says Tantoune's mob is capable of carrying out a threat to divide the country in two, a move he fears ``could bring us to civil war.''
Tantoune reluctantly granted an interview recently as he supervised the unloading of contraband boats at the Gona"ives dockside. Like many Haitians, he said he has never been able to find a job. ``Now the little rice that comes in gives people a living,'' he said.
A dashingly handsome black man, with a wound-scarred chest, he is bitter that the uprising he led has brought few improvements. ``We made the revolution and they promised us a lot but look at us now,'' he scowled. ``We are still in the dirt with dust on our faces. We cannot eat or put a good pair of shoes on our feet.''
The government, which inherited an empty treasury, has scant resources to provide the jobs that would relieve such disappointment. Haiti has been pledged $250 million in international aid for the fiscal year: the US share of $108 million is oriented toward job creation.
Infrastructure projects are a priority. The streets of Raboteau are being improved with stone chippings for the first time.
But Haitian Finance Minister Leslie Delatour does not believe that quick solutions exist. ``People are under the impression that nothing is being done but that is not the case,'' Minister Delatour said in an interview. ``The problem is that not enough is being done compared to the great need. You create 10,000 jobs here, and it's just a drop in the ocean.''
Namphy and Delatour recently led a task force of 65 Haitian delegates to a business conference in Miami where Namphy told potential investors in Haiti that the current unrest does not present a serious risk for them.
``We are saying to foreign investors `do not discount this place,''' Delatour said. ``We have problems but we also have tremendous advantages.'' Among them are long tax holidays and an official minimum wage of $3 a day. Haiti's 6 million people are its only natural resource. Most of them earn an average of only $1 a day in informal jobs.
Despite the cheap labor, there have been no new investors. In fact, 12,000 jobs have disappeared as businesses panicked by continuing civil strife pulled out.