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Haiti marks 200th anniversary amid worsening poverty
The Washington Diplomat / January 2004

By Larry Luxner

On New Year's Day 2004, Haiti will celebrate its 200th anniversary as the world's first independent black republic and only the second nation in this hemisphere after the United States to declare its independence.

Yet the truth is, Haiti doesn't have much to celebrate.

Slightly smaller than Maryland, the country has over 8.5 million inhabitants 50% of them illiterate crammed into its cities, towns and barren hillsides. Haiti's per-capita GDP hovers around $250 a year, making it by far the poorest nation in the Americas.

According to World Bank figures, 80% of Haiti's population lives in abject poverty; 76% of children under the age of five are underweight or experience stunted growth, and 63% of Haitians are undernourished. In addition, Haiti accounts for 90% of all HIV/AIDS cases in the Caribbean, and because there's only one doctor for every 10,000 people, the country's infant mortality rate stands at 93 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Politically, things don't look much better. Relations with the United States are very difficult at the moment, and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide once praised by Washington as a beacon of hope for Haiti's impoverished masses is now viewed by the Bush administration as little better than the dictators who preceded him.

One indication of the bilateral tension is that for the past four years, the Haitian Embassy, which employs 30 people in a mansion fronting Massachusetts Avenue, has been without an ambassador.

For months, the country's envoy to the Organization of American States, Raymond Valcin, has been slated to become Haiti's next ambassador to the United States. The State Department seems to approve the idea, but the Aristide government hasn't yet submitted Valcin's name for consideration by the White House, so the post is still officially vacant.

Valcin, a former professor, was director-general of Haiti's Ministry of Foreign Affairs while the Aristide government was exiled in Washington, after the president's overthrow in 1991. When Aristide returned to Haiti three years later under the protection of U.S. troops, Valcin became Haiti's ambassador to Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, St. Lucia and Guyana.

Neither Valcin nor the embassy's charge d'affaires, Harry Leo Frantz, made themselves available to The Washington Diplomat, despite repeated requests for interviews.

Yet a source close to the Haitian Embassy said relations between Washington and Port-au-Prince are at a virtual standstill.

"Clearly the United States has expressed its frustration with what's going on in Haiti. The U.S. doesn't single Haiti out that way everyone is subject to criticism from the United States but there's also a lot of misperceptions about what's going on in Haiti. Some people blame the government for being intransigent on finding a solution to Haiti's political crisis, when the fact of the matter is that the intransigence is the disloyal opposition, which is hoping for a zero-sum solution."

The source, who asked not to be identified, said Haiti's opposition "has very little political clout in Haiti. When elections are free and fair, their candidates don't win, so there's no incentive for them to participate at the national or legislative level."

An estimated 60% of Haiti's population support Aristide, a former Silesian priest who has long worked closely with the country's impoverished masses. He is generally opposed by the country's mulatto business elite, which has staged demonstrations and rallies to try to unseat him.

As a result, Haiti has been wracked by widespread political violence, with rock-throwing and tear-gassing incidents becoming increasingly common in the streets of Port-au-Prince as Aristide's presidency continues with no end in sight to the political crisis.

"The vision that President Aristide has for Haiti is for participatory democracy that includes the poor and disenfranchised. It is not a detached representative democracy," said the Haitian Embassy source. "Yet Aristide's enemies and members of the former Armed Forces, which the president dismantled, are still in place. Those are the people who wish to derail the accomplishments of the government."

The United States has worked to block $210 million in loans that had previously been approved by the Inter-American Development Bank. Those loans have subsequently been released. Last month, the head of the World Bank's Caribbean division announced that the bank is planning to "re-engage" in Haiti after a four-year absence. The World Bank hopes to allocate $45 million over a two-year period in various educational and health-care projects.

Most of the economic assistance that Haiti now receives from the United States is channeled through NGOs and private voluntary organizations.

"Our policy in Haiti is to support implementation of OAS Resolution 822, which was approved by consensus by all OAS members including Haiti," said State Department spokesman Lou Fintor. That resolution, he says, "calls for free and fair elections to be held in a climate of security. President Aristide has failed to take the steps asked of him by the OAS."

Nevertheless, Fintor said there is no freeze on any U.S. loans to Haiti.

"The United States is the largest donor since Aristide was restored to power in 1994. It has made more than $850 million in donor funds available to Haiti between 1995 and 2003," he said. "In fiscal 2003, all U.S. grants totaled more than $70 million. This money is to promote health care, nutrition, education, sustainable agriculture, micro-enterprise and democracy programs."

Despite Haiti's overwhelming problems, there are a few glimmers of hope. In 2001, Haiti was admitted to the English-speaking Caribbean Community (Caricom), despite the fact that Haiti's official languages are French and Creole. Haiti's admittance effectively doubled Caricom's population and has helped reduce the isolation that has traditionally plagued the country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic.

Nearly a million Haitian refugees are thought to be living in the Dominican Republic many of them illegally while another 500,000 reside in the United States. One of them is Magda Silva, a Maryland consultant who's also treasurer of the Toussaint L'Ouverture Historical Society, which has around 40 members.

"For us, this is a time of reflection rather than celebration," she said. "It's all about being able to understand the totality of Haiti. From a personal perspective, most of the events in Haitian history the Duvalier era, the military coup, Aristide are looked at only in a particular point in time. But Haiti is a series of repeated events that have manifested themselves differently. The only way to break the cycle is to understand it."

Silva said many scholars believe that when Haiti declared its independence from France in 1804, "it was at a time when color was still a major obstacle to being recognized as a part of humanity."

Silva said her organization named after Haiti's independence hero plans to sponsor several events in the Washington, D.C., area. Many of them will be held in late June and early July, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival featuring Haiti.

"We're doing a retrospect at the Smithsonian with a series of historical paintings depicting events in Haiti's history," she said. "We're also in talks with a local film institute to have a week of documentaries on Haiti, and we're looking at sponsoring a VIP ambassador's reception for local dignitaries."

In Haiti itself, tourism officials hope that the country's upcoming 200th anniversary will shine the spotlight on Haiti's natural attractions and encourage people to visit.

"We are surprised that more and more people are coming as tourists, but we're extremely annoyed that there is a complete barrier in the tourist industry to sell Haiti," said Fred Pierre-Louis, owner of the 103-room Plaza Hotel (formerly the Holiday Inn) in downtown Port-au-Prince. "We go on the Internet to, and Haiti's not even mentioned."

Adds Elisabeth Silvera Ducasse, co-owner of the Hotel El Rancho and president of the Association Touristique d'Haiti: "Most people here are concerend about political stability and not festivities, but there are professionals in art and culture who would like to come to Haiti."

At the moment, Haiti receives two cruise-ship calls a week, bringing 5,000 to 6,000 people weekly to the country. Yet there are only 800 hotel rooms in the entire country, compared to over 40,000 in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

"We were supposed to have 5,000 hotel rooms by 2004 if the master plan had been put into practice. But unfortunately, it was not done," said Giliane Cesar Joubert, the association's executive director. "This is why we have a backlog of hotel rooms."

While it's unclear how many Americans would visit a country in such political turmoil, there's little doubt that Haiti's 200th anniversary and its historical ties to the United States will give the country a higher profile in Congress next year.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) recently introduced legislation entitled the New Partnership for Haiti Act of 2003. The lawmaker, who has lined up 27 co-sponsors, says her bill would execute an environmentally-sound approach to rebuild and develop basic sanitation, water, and health infrastructure systems for Haiti.

Lee's legislation seeks to address the impediments to adequate medical care and basic necessities for millions of Haitians by providing the resources necessary to build new roads; offering water treatment solutions; and developing sanitation systems.

One other feature of the Partnership for Haiti Act calls for a Peace Corps-like pilot program that would provide the means for American doctors, scientists, and engineers interested in participating in Haiti's development process to live and work there in partnership with Haitian NGOs, USAID and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We have a moral imperative to help the Haitian people survive this humanitarian and medical crisis," said Lee. "This bill provides that aid. As a Congress, we must work together to make this happen."

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