WHEN Chris Conrad, director of CARE in Haiti, started calculating how far he could stretch his fuel reserves last month, he panicked.
If the United Nations fuel embargo continued, or fuel supplies ran out in January as some have predicted, the recipients of CARE's food distribution program could drop from 620,000 children to zero by the end of February, he estimated.
``Things don't look as bad as they did a few weeks ago,'' Mr. Conrad says. ``But we don't think it's sustainable, because when the reserves at the pumps are finished, well, that's it. We're slowly but surely moving to catastrophe.''
With the military virtually in control of the country, and its right-wing backers calling for dissolution of parliament, Haitians are bracing for a further economic decline under the worldwide fuel embargo.
Efforts to force the military to conform with the July 3 Governors Island accord and to return President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power seemed to reach a dead end Dec. 15 with the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Malval and the failure of the world community to come up with any decisive steps. Conference plan abandoned
Hopes for a negotiated settlement were setback when Mr. Malval abandoned a plan for a national conference to discuss the country's political crisis. The Clinton administration supported the proposal, but US officials said that Fr. Aristide, in a change of heart, served notice last Monday he was opposed. Aides said Aristide felt that conditions in Haiti would not permit a freewheeling political debate, since many would feel intimidated by the military.
At talks in Paris on Dec. 13 and 14, ``the four friends'' of Haiti - the United States, Canada, France, and Venezuela - met, but reached few new conclusions, outlining again conditions that must be met before sanctions can be lifted and suggesting that they would contemplate harsher sanctions if negotiations continued to falter. Military representatives from these countries plan to meet today in Port-au-Prince.
In the Governors Island Accord, Army Chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras agreed to step down, allowing Aristide, deposed from power in Sept. 1991, to regain presidential power on Oct. 30. The US remains committed to restoring the accord, says US Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian toll of the embargo has stirred a debate here over its usefulness, since it seems to be hurting the poorest rather than its intended target, the military. While organizations attempting to feed the country's poor, such as CARE, are having to cut back on urgently needed services, the wealthy are storing dozens of 55-gallon fuel drums on the roofs of their mansions.
CARE needs approximately 40,000 gallons of fuel a month to deliver their food aid to their 1,500 distribution sites, Conrad says. About 300 containers of food await distribution on the Port-au-Prince docks. And Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children are also feeling the embargo's effects.
Catholic Relief Services normally serves 170,000 children, mostly in schools. Twenty percent of their service has been cut, but they worry that in three months they will not be able to continue their program at all.
CARE did receive 6,000 gallons of fuel from the government's 800,000 gallon strategic reserves in November, but the government stopped distributing that more than a month ago. It is unclear why they stopped, but Conrad thinks it is because there are no more reserves.
The military has indicated that other services will receive fuel reserves first, though, once distribution resumes. They have named state-run services, such as the telephone company, the electric company, and the water supply company as priority recipients, but have given no official word about how much fuel remains in reserve.
``In a sense, the embargo never had any credibility,'' one economist says. ``The Aristide camp always complained that it wasn't strong enough, nor well enforced. And the other side never wanted it to begin with. Even if you are neutral, after 26 months of a crisis, you have to admit that it hasn't worked.'' Embargo opposed by all sides
Neither support of, nor opposition to, the embargo follows party lines. Many nongovernmental human service organizations, as well as staunch Aristide supporters, are beginning to question the embargo as a legitimate tool for change.
The National Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) a military-backed group, also opposes the embargo. Last weekend, FRAPH organized an anti-embargo demonstration where thousands of Haitians paraded in front of military headquarters.
Meanwhile the UN is devising a program that would exempt fuel distribution to nongovernmental organizations like CARE, in hopes of minimizing the embargo's negative effects on the most impoverished. That program is still on paper, though. Details have not been released.
``We'd certainly welcome a program like that,'' Conrad says. ``But will we be able to protect ourselves - in particular our drivers, if we are the only ones on the road? Unless there's a lot more fuel than anyone knows about, the day of reckoning is at hand.''