Haitians Tire of Waiting For 'Big Brother' to Help
Protests and anti-foreigner sentiment are on the rise in Haiti. Many Haitians say foreign aid has fallen short.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — On any given day in Haiti, someone is protesting something, somewhere. It could be corruption of officials, the high cost of living, or pay for civil employees.
Ironically it is the blan, Haiti's catch-all phrase for foreigners, who are the target of some of the most pointed criticism. Hailed as heroes when 23,000 United States troops helped overturn a military dictatorship and restore exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office in October 1994, Americans today are blamed for everything from an illegal occupation force to a failing economy.
Two-and-a-half years after the intervention, the economy is recovering at a snail's pace. Inflation continues to rise, and about half the country is un- or underemployed. "There is an anxiety that transition brings," says US Ambassador to Haiti, William Swing. "These people brought in the policy, so blame them. For the majority of the population, change hasn't come fast enough; for another group, it has come too soon."
Port-au-Prince's mayor opened an April benefit concert by a Haitian-American rap group, the Fugees, with a song cursing the blan. A few days later, a Roman Catholic priest, himself a foreigner, warned Haitians that "foreign governments too often hide behind international organizations and nongovernmental organizations to work against the interests and desires of the Haitian population."
The US has played a large role in Haiti this century. US troops occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The US funneled millions of dollars to the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957 to 1986. And it provided a haven for Mr. Aristide and gave Haiti $235 million in aid on his return.
Today, funds from the World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank, and the European Union help finance Haiti's budget. Troops from the United Nations provide security. The US has provided about $100 million in food aid to Haiti for 1996 and '97.
Despite all this intervention, the country is still the poorest in the hemisphere. "Dependency creates this terrible resentment," says one foreign observer living in Haiti.
"After the restoration of democracy, the Haitian businessman thought that businesses would take off," says politician Micha Gaillard. "Local leaders thought they would have a close relationship with US policy makers. And the Haitian people thought there would be a miracle with the investment from the blan.
"But foreigners are only part of the problem," he adds. "There's an even bigger problem with Haitian leaders." Millions of dollars in international aid have gone undistributed while parliament hammered out a budget. The budget passed this month - eight months late - but Haitians must wait longer for the aid until a structural-adjustment program is passed.
"I've been called 'blan' ever since I was little," says one light-skinned Haitian who asked not to be identified. "But it's only in the last 10 years, since the economic situation has gotten worse, that have I felt any aggression. So many governments have come and gone, and nothing has changed."
The relationship between Haitians and the blan has become most strained in the poorer countryside. Foreigners working as human, not financial, resources, find it's more difficult to be accepted, and even then, they are often seen as bank-rollers. "It's frustrating for volunteers with empty pockets to be perceived as blan with money to disperse," says Mark Ellis, associate director of the Peace Corps here.
The restoration of democracy is what has made protests possible. During the Duvalier and military dictatorships, expressing dissent could cost a person their life. "Americans have made it possible for Haitians to express their discontent," says Leslie Desmangles, president of the Haitian Studies Association in Hartford, Conn. "Now they can demonstrate against the IMF or programs financed by the United States Agency for International Development."