Haitians feel the aftershock of US aid cuts. But cuts may not achieve aim of bringing regime to heel

Rene Laroche is in a bind. Sitting on his terrace watching the rain pour down as he contemplates Haiti's gloomy political outlook, he also has a more immediate problem on his mind: the mango crop.

Mr. Laroche normally exports 200 dozen mangoes a week to the United States. But as the US government moved to show its displeasure at the cancellation of the Nov. 29 elections, and to protect its personnel from violence, the US Department of Agriculture's mango inspector suddenly left town three weeks ago.

Without a USDA certificate, Laroche can't sell his mangoes to the US market, and local demand is slack. So his fruit are rotting on the ground.

The absence of USDA inspectors is only a sidelight on the suspension of US non-humanitarian aid to Haiti in the wake of an Army-condoned bloodbath that sabotaged the country's first attempt at free elections in 30 years. But it illustrates the breadth of the impact that move will have should the cutoff remain in force.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, lives on foreign aid. For years it has funded almost its entire development program - building schools, hospitals, and roads - with outside donations. That assistance totaled $194 million in 1987, according to official figures, and came mainly from the United States, France, West Germany, and Japan.

More critical for day-to-day operations, however, the Haitian government depends on more than $1 million a week of budget support from Washington - money that dried up in the wake of the election fiasco.

While the Reagan administration is maintaining ``humanitarian'' aid to fund development projects benefitting poor Haitians, it is suspending $35.3 million a year in Economic Support Funds.

Those dollars have been essential in closing Haiti's balance of payments' gap. This year, for example, export earnings and money sent home by expatriates are expected to total only $256 million, well short of the country's $300 million import bill.

``The immediate financial consequences of the US measures are wider than US aid itself, though,'' points out one Western economic expert here.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was due to release $17 million of a ``structural adjustment facility'' (part of an economic austerity program) to Haiti on Dec. 14, but has now delayed that disbursement indefinitely, officials here say. Tied to the IMF money was another $20 million in credit from the World Bank, which is also being held back.

US Economic Support Funds, the World Bank loan, and the IMF facility together account for 30 percent of the government's $240 million per year operating budget. ``The Haitian economy is at rock bottom now,'' says Thomas Desulme, a wealthy businessman and presidential candidate. ``If you take the US dollars away, it will die.''

The signs of crisis are already showing, Mr. Desulme says. The Haitian currency, the gourde, now sells on the black market at 25 percent above the official rate - more than its historic devaluation nearly two years ago, when Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced from power.

Government officials brush off the impact of the US aid suspension. ``It's not the first time that this has happened in the history of this country, that the great powers impose their view of the situation with the big stick,'' says Information Minister Gerard Noel.

Though Jean-Claude's father, Francois Duvalier, did indeed survive for 11 years without US aid after US President John F. Kennedy cut off all assistance in 1962, foreign observers doubt that Haiti could do the same again now.

``Today that would be impossible,'' argues one European economist here. ``It would be hard to just close the ports down, because people have got too used to the smuggled goods'' that account for a quarter of Haiti's imports.

It is nonetheless uncertain whether the new US aid suspension will put any pressure on Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, who leads the military-dominated junta.

General Namphy has announced new elections for Jan. 17, ignoring the refusal of several prominent presidential candidates to again run for office while he remains in power. The general insists he will step down on Feb. 7 in favor of the winner, regardless of whether the world finds the elections fair and credible. Foreign analysts here say Central Bank reserves will last that long.

Government officials, many of whom already have seen their pay checks delayed, may suffer, according to Western diplomats. But the country likely will be able to pay its essential imports bills for the next two months.

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