HAITIAN President General Prosper Avril completed a year in office Sept. 17. He has managed to survive several coup attempts, a crippling economic decline, and an increase in the random violence that drains the country morally and materially. The same hope that sprang up in February 1986 when Jean Claude Duvalier fled the country reappeared when Mr. Avril took office. There was some general housecleaning, as low-ranking soldiers ousted superiors with Duvalierist ties. But Avril himself, with 30 years of service to the Duvalier regime, was suspect. People took a wait-and-see attitude.
Now even Avril's most vocal critics acknowledge certain improvements. Most recently, the president agreed to substantially cut official salaries, and halve his own, to help fight the country's huge deficit. But many promises have yet to be realized. The result is widespread discontent, increased repression, and political instability.
Already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti's economic situation continues to deteriorate. Coffee, one of Haiti's main exports, can no longer compete on the world market. Currently, Haiti imports nearly twice as much as it exports in order to feed its people. The market is flooded with free or low-cost staple foods that have undercut an already unstable local market.
In the capital city, nightly murders, robberies, and rapes force people inside when the sun goes down. Both the elite bourgeois and the penniless beggar are victims of this rising insecurity. One facet of the situation is increased banditry, perhaps a desperate response to the decaying economy. Another is the insidious attempt to keep people from organizing for democratic reform. Most of the rural organizations that formed after Duvalier's departure have collapsed.
One significant difference in this current wave of violence is the difficulty of tracing its source. Though there are no fingerprints leading to the National Palace, official passivity and mock investigations suggest some sort of collusion, if not direct involvement.
Ironically, from the beginning Avril has expressed an interest in the transition to a civilian government. He is proud of the Provisional Electoral Council, which this month will announce the electoral calendar. While the government insists on the council's honest intentions and independence, Duvalierist sympathizers and death-squad members have been reported present at several council meetings. These thugs made it clear that, despite a constitutional provision prohibiting anyone linked to Duvalier from participating, they intend to run for office.
The US, meanwhile, continues to praise President Avril. The deputy assistant secretary of state for the Caribbean, Richard Melton, recently said the US fully supports the efforts of Avril to move forward on democratic, social, and economic reforms.
Free and fair elections are a precondition for resumption of US aid, which was cut off after an election-day massacre in November 1987. The US also demands reduced drug trafficking and improved human-rights conditions.
Encouraged by Haiti's cooperation in drug control, the US recently approved $300,000 to help in this effort. The money will be used to expand the government's ability to track down dealers. Critics, however, question how the money will be kept out of the pockets of government employees, who are themselves often part of the drug trafficking.
Human-rights violations are numerous as ever. Illegal arrests average one a day; arbitrary detentions and assassinations are common. In the countryside, the victims are usually members of peasant and church groups and labor unions, and those who participate in political demonstrations.
Whether as a result of politics or economics, more people than ever are fleeing the country by boat. In the first six months of this year, 20,530 Haitians on some 300 boats were stopped by the US Coast Guard.
There is little question that Haiti desperately needs economic assistance to get back on its feet. But if the US blindly doles out dollars it risks perpetuating a system that is doing nothing for its 6 million poor. Given the current situation, Haitians have little reason to feel optimistic that either their economic or political situation is likely to change in the near future.