Haitians Focus on Daily Struggle

Numbed by previous initiatives and preoccupied by shrinkikng resources, Haitians' reaction to news of increased multinational support for an invasion is slight

THE international community Tuesday heightened its invasion rhetoric in the continuing effort to depose key Haitian military leaders. But Haitians themselves seem far less concerned about invasion prospects than about surviving the daily battle of mounting costs and declining conditions.

Numbed by numerous failed international initiatives, Tuesday's news that four countries - Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and Belize - had agreed to send troops as part of a US-led invasion of Haiti went virtually unnoticed in the streets of Haiti's capital.

Nor did ordinary Haitians or the de facto government give much attention to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's dismay over an aborted peace mission.

The UN delegation that arrived in the Dominican Republic last Thursday withdrew Tuesday after Haitian officials refused to meet with them. Mr. Boutros-Ghali had hoped to persuade Haiti's military leaders to resign peacefully.

Motivated more by fear than indifference, the Haitian population also reacted stoically to Sunday's murder of Roman Catholic Priest Jean-Marie Vincent, a close ally of deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

``It's not that people don't care,'' an activist says. ``They are just scared to death to react to anything political or otherwise.''

Basics now luxuries

What most of Haiti's 7 million are concerned about is the tripling price of transportation, the rapid decline of the Haitian gourde, and routine gunfire that keeps them barricaded in their homes after dark.

Since the UN increased sanctions last May, formerly affordable staples have become calculated luxuries. A box of powdered milk has gone from 28 gourdes ($1.40) to 44 in three weeks. A box of 50 bars of locally produced soap, which sold in May for 120 gourdes is now 350. The value of the gourde has fluctuated from 13 gourdes to the dollar up to 25 gourdes per dollar, settling this week at 20.

``I have to give my kids mange chech,'' complains Marie, a mother of eight. The Creole expression, literally translated to mean ``dry food.'' It is a sign of humiliation if rice or corn meal is served plain without the embellishment of oil, beans, or meat.

Marie's family livelihood, like hundreds of other families, depended on the salary of one of her daughters, who received 1,500 gourdes - roughly $125 - a month as a factory supervisor. When the factory closed this summer, it closed off the possibility for any of Marie's other children to go to school this fall.

Some mothers have become so desperate that they are abandoning their children to the state-run hospital in record numbers. L'Hospital General was receiving one or two abandoned children a month; director Georges Dubuche says they now receive one, two, or even three a day.

``The abandoned-children wing is overcrowded, but in other wings 30 percent of our beds are empty,'' Dr. Dubuche explains. ``The price of transportation is so high that many people prefer to try alternative medicine or their local town health centers,'' he says. ``The cost of treatment is so high that they wait until the problem is so advanced, they have no choice but to seek help. And finally they don't have money for prescriptions.''

Help is held captive

And many nongovernmental health programs that take up the slack of minimal state-run services are on the brink of collapse because of lack of fuel. About 500,000 gallons of embargo-exempt fuel is earmarked for 311 public and private nongovernmental organizations, reaching more than 1 million people, but government authorities thus far have refused to release it. Agencies expected the release at the end of last week after a month of negotiations on this issue, but as of Tuesday it had not yet been granted.

``It's been a long, hard slog to get something which should be very straight-forward,'' says Iain Guest, senior adviser to the UN. ``This is for providing food, medicine, and water for Haitians. This is not some foreign indulgence, but a gut, humane operation.''

Similarly, the United States has been working through an intermediary organization to receive permission for more than 1,000 approved political asylum refugees to leave Haiti for the US. US diplomats expect to begin transporting the refugees overland through the Dominican Republic this week.

After showing their ability to flex their muscles and disrupt the workings of the international community, the Army seems likely to concede on the gas and refugee issues.

But there is still no sign that they will acquiesce on the big one - the international community's demand for Army leaders' resignations.

High ranking officers made no official comment on this week's international events. They say such matters concern the civilian government, not them. Military troops continue marching in the capital, though the number of their show of force fluctuates daily.

Pressure on the Haitian government intensified Tuesday when the US and Caribbean nations announced in Jamaica that they were ``moving briskly'' toward a military invasion of Haiti, and a US-led force would begin training in Puerto Rico.

Britain also announced yesterday they will provide a frigate, a support tanker, and a small military training team to aid an invasion force.

But the invasion talk is not comforting to everyone. ``The murder of Father Vincent could have been a special message to Aristide,'' says a former member of his government. ``Even an invasion can't save you - if you come back, we'll kill you too.''

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