A year after Aristide ouster, Haiti is remarkably unchanged

Earlier this month, passengers arriving at and departing from the airport in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince were greeted by attractive young women handing out free T-shirts with the 2005 carnival slogan "dantanm se kinam" - Creole for "My Past Belongs to Me." An odd choice, given Haiti's history, which, while boasting many accomplishments, including the distinction of being the first black independent country, has also had extraordinary turbulence: 45 changes of government since 1804, with nearly a dozen since 1986.

Still, the public relations campaign was an admirable attempt to put a positive spin on the suffering of a deeply troubled nation.

In the year since the controversial circumstances surrounding the Feb. 29 departure of former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who boarded a US airplane and was let off in the Central African Republic, things haven't improved much; some argue that they are worse.

The former president, who now resides in South Africa with his wife and two children, dreams of returning to finish the last 11 months of his second five-year term - just as he did when international forces reinstalled him in 1994 after a coup just months into his first presidential term in the early '90s.

But rogue security forces, whose only legitimacy comes from the arms they carry, seem to be running the show in the absence of any legitimate Haitian government.

President Aristide's departure was hardly the panacea many had hoped for.

Corruption, insecurity, injustice, and chaos seem to be Haitian constants. Violent musclemen with big guns, loyal to Aristide, control more than a dozen sections of the capital, despite the presence of a US-endorsed Haitian technocrat who is caretaker of the government until presidential elections later this year.

The Aristide proxies are collaborating - and competing, too - with members of the former military, many of whom returned from exile in the Dominican Republic to join their corrupt colleagues.

The thugs - from all sides - are the only security force in numerous towns in the countryside.

The Haitian National Police control next to nothing, though they put on a good show patrolling the capital for Carnival (Feb. 6-8) alongside members of the 6,000 blue-beret peacekeepers from the United Nations.

Port-au-Prince's Carnival is a bellwether of the state of the nation. Although there is no such thing as "normal" in Haiti, Carnival is usually the one time of the year when a large cross section of the social strata gathers in one place, with government officials straining to see the parade from the balconies of the National Palace and other nearby offices.

The business sector builds stands along the route by the National Palace, and then fills them with clients, friends, and family - at symbolic remove from the masses of thousands of poor Haitians (joined by adventurous tourists) who cavort through the streets all night long.

Even last year, with the drama that foreshadowed Aristide's departure unfolding all around them, partygoers carpeted the streets. Not this year. The business community - distrustful if not disdainful of this government, and financially strapped by the perpetual political and social upheavals - boycotted this year's celebration. Stands that have always doubled as advertising billboards were eerily absent. The few stands that were built, mostly by the government, were empty - its own unintended display of the government's lack of support in any quarter.

This year several people were killed during Carnival; the circumstances remain unclear and no arrests were made - another of Haiti's sad trademarks. Nearly all of Haiti's crimes go unpunished - the most notorious assassins have never been brought to justice, while hundreds of others languish in Haiti's jails.

Jailbreaks are as common as storms during the rainy season, which left more than 4,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless last year.

On Feb. 19 an unidentified group of "commandos" stormed the National Penitentiary, and nearly 500 of the 1,2OO-plus prisoners escaped. The two most high-profile inmates - Aristide's prime minister, Yvon Neptune, and interior minister, Jocelerme Privert - were escorted back to prison just hours after their release.

Meanwhile, one of the lead instigators of Aristide's departure - former military man Ravix Remissainthe - roams freely, despite a $7,000 reward for his arrest in the alleged assassination of four policemen this month.

Not that the government has money to spare for rewards. Less than 10 percent of the $1.4 billion pledged by the international community has been issued to the Haitian government, and salaries and the cost of electricity - not programs that ultimately benefit the population - eat up most of what aid does come through.

Remittances from Haitians in the US are believed to be about $1 billion a year - without that, it's hard to imagine how Haiti could survive at all.

Sadly, it is going to take more than a T-shirt from Carnival to change Haiti's image.

National reconciliation and a long-term commitment from the international community is as perennial a need as Carnival is a perennial symbol of hope that a brighter future belongs to Haiti.

Kathie Klarreich, author of a forthcoming memoir on Haiti, 'Madame Dread,' lived in and has covered Haiti for nearly 20 years.

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