Haiti, After Rebound, Again at Risk

Struggle over cutting state jobs mars once-promising rescue

Haiti's last best chance to sustain its fledgling democracy is ebbing away.

Wrangling between former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and current President Rene Preval is not helping. Nor is the prospect of an imminent withdrawal of the United Nations security force.

Dictators, soldiers, and political strongmen ran Haiti most of the time from independence in 1804 through 1990, including the rapacious rule of Franois ("Papa Doc") and Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier from 1957 to 1986.

Dismantling state firms

Popular government is thus new to Haiti, but Mr. Aristide's ecstatic victory in the 1990 elections was overwhelming. His restoration by United States troops in 1994 for the remainder of his five-year-term led to a year and a half of partial reform. Mr. Preval, handpicked by Aristide, has continued down the democratic path established by his predecessor.

But there are crucial differences. Preval seeks to open up the Haitian economy to world trade. He wants to end protectionism and understands that competition will help Haiti grow. To do so, he needs to dismantle decades of state control of the inefficient telephone and electricity monopolies, and sell off state-owned flour mills, cement plants, ports, and airports - an approach opposed by both the Haitian elite and workers.

Aristide patronage loss?

The World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other donors have promised substantial restructuring loans and grants if and when Prval privatizes. Populists should support Prval. But Aristide, the supreme populist, either does not understand market economics or fears the loss of executive direction and patronage that could come from privatization.

There have been orchestrated protest demonstrations against the presumed forfeiture of government jobs, too. Because of that major policy disagreement, and probably because Aristide has begun to plan for a second presidency beginning in 2001, he is trying to block Prval's most critical initiatives.

Aristide's followers broke away recently from the once dominant Aristide-Prval political machine to form a new Lavalas ("the flood that overcomes") Party loyal to Aristide. In the recent local government elections, Lavalas-Aristide candidates won more seats than Lavalas-Prval candidates, but the overall turnout was very low.

If these conflicts within the democratic camp were not enough, Prval's Haiti is enduring an upsurge in crime and political violence than cannot but be exacerbated by the declared departure of the 1,300-person Canadian-led United Nations force at the end of July. His own, newly trained police force is regarded as weak and unable to cope with the deteriorating security situation.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that the UN mission will end in July, whatever the consequences. Yet Prval cannot do without some outside security assistance. The United Nations security force withdrawal risks sacrificing the UN's and the US's substantial investment in order and political stability in Haiti.

Biggest need: growth

Prval has been trying to jumpstart the engine of economic growth, despite the security crisis and despite opposition from Aristide and his followers. Without rapid rates of growth, the economy will continue to stagnate, and Haiti's hard-won democracy will be at risk.

Haiti remains the poorest and least industrialized nation in the Western Hemisphere. Two-thirds of its 7 million citizens live below the national poverty level. In 1996, Haitian gross domestic product per capita was about $250, approximately the level of Africa's impoverished Malawi, about one-quarter the gross domestic product of neighboring Dominican Republic, and half that of Honduras, the second weakest economy in the hemisphere.

Poorest neighbor - by far

Seventy percent of Haiti's population is rural and dependent almost entirely on subsistence or cash cropping. Agriculture contributes only about 30 percent to gross domestic product. Haiti has been a net importer of food, especially rice, since the 1980s. Prval wants to boost Haiti's rice harvest and remove state controls to do so. That is one of his battles with Aristide.

Haiti's poverty is demonstrated statistically by its low life expectancy (57 years), high infant mortality rate (84 per 1,000), high ratio of people to physicians (1:11,000), and high incidence of malnutritional diseases. AIDS is widespread, as are measles, meningitis, rabies, and anthrax. Only 1.5 percent of the population has access to piped water. Electric power is short, even in the capital, as are telephones.

Haiti also has a critical shortage of human capital - hence the need for continued United Nations and United States attention. Illiteracy is severe: Recent estimates range from 50 to 85 percent. Only about 50 percent of eligible Haitians go to school, the lowest rate in the hemisphere.

The Prval government thus has much to do. If Ren Prval and his cohorts can survive Aristide's opposition, and that of former Duvalierists, and if they can make the country more secure - a tall order in light of the United Nations pullout - then the chance of democracy being sustained is at least reasonable.

But if the growth of domestic production continues to falter, privatization slows or collapses, and new jobs remain scarce, Haiti will have squandered its best opportunity to emerge from centuries of grim inertia.

Haiti deserves better, particularly from the United States, Canada, France, and its Caribbean neighbors.

* Robert I. Rotberg, long an authority on Haiti, is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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