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After Baby Doc: Haiti today.

When Columbus landed on Hispaniola, he thought he had discovered paradise on earth. Clear rivers forged their way down the dramatic mountainsides, plunging through rocks, past the rich, green woodland which covered most of the island and rushing out onto the golden beaches below.

The modern visitor gains a rather different impression. The mountains now lie bare and rugged, the trees hacked down by the poor, whose only source of fuel for cooking is charcoal. The deforestation has inevitably led to erosion of the topsoil, so the country's agricultural base is in trouble. Almost 70 per cent of the country's seven million population struggles to eke out a living, using the most basic tools, from tiny parcels of increasingly barren land. Their future looks grim.

This is Haiti, one third of the second largest Caribbean island, first black republic in the world and the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. So what went wrong in paradise?

The key lies in Haiti's turbulent history. Once Columbus had staked claim to the island, it was colonised by the Spanish. The indigenous Arawak population was quickly wiped out. In 1697, the island's resources of gold plundered, the Spanish ceded the western part of the island to France, who called it Saint Domingue. The French settlers chopped down trees in order to set up huge plantations - mainly sugar, but also coffee, indigo and cotton. Saint Domingue became one of the richest and most productive colonies, referred to by the French as the 'Pearl of the Antilles'. This wealth was based on African slave labour, brought in at the rate of around twenty thousand each year. The treatment of the slaves was brutal, even by the standards of other colonies at that time.

A third class of Haitian inhabitants also developed - light-skinned mulattos, the children of white settlers and black slaves. Some were treated the same as the rest of the slaves. Many, however, were acknowledged and brought up by their colonist fathers. Many were well-educated and some became wealthy in their own right. Female mulattos became objects of desire amongst the white settler men and thereby objects of hate amongst the white women. The mulattos were a class apart - resented by the black slaves and looked down upon and excluded by the white settlers. The legacy of these divisions is still in evidence today.

By 1789, there were 480,000 slaves, 60,000 mulattos and 20,000 landowning Europeans on the island. Between 1791 and 1803, the slaves rebelled and eventually overthrew the French, to create the first black republic in the world. During this time, it became clear that there were irreconcilable differences between the blacks and the mulattos, although they did sometimes fight together. After the establishment of the black republic, alienated by the despotic rulers who took it over, the mulattos rebelled and set up a second republic. It eventually took over the black republic and even the Spanish part of the island. This, however, broke away again, and in 1843 the two independent states of the Dominican Republic and Haiti were established.

During this period of upheaval, the foundations of many of Haiti's current problems were laid. The large plantations were dismantled and small parcels of land given to individuals. These were cleared and planted with subsistence crops. Most of the forests were now lost and the clearing of the land meant the beginning of soil erosion. Further, with the loss of the plantations, there was no effort to maintain an economic infrastructure. Roads disappeared and many rural areas became cut off from the towns. The loss of the plantations also meant a loss of much needed export revenue, particularly unfortunate once Haiti agreed to pay 150 million francs in compensation to the dispossessed French planters.

The remainder of the nineteenth century saw further unrest, as one dictator succeeded another. Between 1843 and 1915, twenty-two different presidents ruled Haiti. By 1915, the political situation was very unstable. Worried about European intervention, the United States invaded the whole island, not withdrawing until 1934 and even then retaining substantial influence over the two countries. The 1940s and 1950s saw a series of coups, culminating, in 1957 with the take-over by Francois Duvalier, commonly known as 'Papa Doc'. This machiavellian country doctor manipulated the elite mulatto group in power by a mixture of voodoo and the brutality of his security force, the Tonton-Macoutes (creole for 'bogeymen').

Duvalier died in April 1971. During his fourteen-year reign, an estimated thirty to sixty thousand people had died by state terrorism; the infrastructure had been neglected, with the sole exception of the airport built by the US; most intellectuals had left the country (it was thought that by 1970 there were more Haitian doctors practising in Montreal than in Haiti) and a large part of the country's wealth had been siphoned off into Duvalier accounts.

The nineteen-year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) took over where his father had left off. His regime continued the state terrorism and large-scale embezzlement. In 1981, an outbreak of African swine fever was a major disaster. Washington recommended the killing of the entire indigenous black pig population, a mainstay of the Haitian diet. In their place, they introduced expensive to maintain, non-foraging pink pigs. This caused strong resentment against Duvalier and led to widespread protein deficiency which persists to this day, although the indigenous pig has been reintroduced. By 1985, Baby Doc was extremely unpopular within Haiti and was under substantial pressure to resign both internally and from the international community. Eventually he fled abroad, taking most of the country's wealth with him.

The 1987 elections were followed by a coup. Further elections were held in 1990 and President Aristide was voted in. Soon afterwards, there was another coup, as a result of which the international community imposed an embargo on the country. By April 1992, there had been over 4,000 assassinations and over 40,000 people trying to flee Haiti had been picked up by the US navy. In 1994, a multinational force led by the US invaded and reinstated Aristide. In 1996, democratic elections were held, in which Rene Preval was elected President.

Preval inherited the poorest country in the western hemisphere - indeed one of the poorest countries in the world. It needs substantial investment in its infrastructure, particularly roads, telecommunications, ports and airports. Foreign investment is needed, but companies are holding off, waiting for infrastructure improvements and assurance of political stability.

Preval is pursuing a policy of privatisation and a series of reforms agreed with the IMF and the World Bank. Foreign aid is coming in again after the lifting of the embargo. In 1995, the GDP experienced growth after four years of decline and it continues to creep up. GDP PPP per head stood in 1995 at $930. In rural areas, many people live outside the regular economy, operating the centuries-old system of barter. During 1997, the national currency was devalued to 17 gourdes to the US dollar, thus reducing the purchasing power of the Haitians, given that most products on sale are imported. The principle exports are manufactured goods (assembled in Haiti because of low labour costs) and coffee. Also there are one million Haitians in the US, Canada and France and 500,000 in the Dominican Republic and between them they remit around $100 million per year, thus contributing significantly to the country's income.

The measures agreed with the IMF and initiated by Preval are harsh and unpopular. 1997 saw strikes, rioting and general unrest, the resignation of the Prime Minister, as well as the withdrawal of UN troops at the end of November. The survival of Preval's regime looks increasingly shaky.

Things are grim indeed. The population, currently seven million, is growing at 2 per cent per year in spite of migration and an infant mortality rate of 130 in 1000. Unchecked, it will reach some 20 million by 2040. This in a country with a total area of 27,750 [km.sup.2] - roughly equivalent to the size of Wales or the US state of Maryland.

Most of the population still lives in the country, but as it becomes increasingly difficult to eke out a living from the land, people are migrating to the cities. In true Latin American style, vast shanty towns are springing up in the capital, Port-au-Prince, insanitary breeding grounds for the country's frequent epidemics.

Less than 60 per cent of the population receives even primary healthcare, so easily curable problems can often go untreated. Aids has become one of the most widespread diseases in Haiti. Malnutrition is also rife. Every day, the international community feeds around a tenth of the population.

The typical Haitian diet is simple - rice and beans or corn and beans cooked in a pot set over a charcoal fire outside the simple one or two-bedroomed home. Protein deficiency continues to be a problem, although the black pig population is growing once again. Water is also hard to come by. 20 per cent in the capital and 30 per cent in the rest of the country have access to clean drinking water. The rest have to make do with what they can get.

Over half the population is illiterate. Many families now try to send at least one child to school, skimping and scraping to pay the fees and buy the books and uniforms needed. Most of the schools are small, private and unregulated, providing a variable standard of education for their impeccably uniformed pupils.

Eighty per cent of the population is Catholic, but most are also devotees of voodoo. Voodoo, the subject of much sensationalist literature, is actually a product of the slave trade. The landowners tortured or killed slaves caught practising their African Yoruba religions and forcibly baptised them as Catholics. The slaves did not abandon their beliefs, but merged them with Catholic rites and beliefs to form voodoo. Santeria in Cuba evolved in much the same way.

Voodoo is centred round a belief in the loa or gods. Devotees believe that all things serve the loa and are therefore expressions and extensions of the gods. The loa are thought to be very active in the world and are said to possess devotees during ritual. Devotees make offerings to the loa and entreat them for help. Voodoo is organised in communities called societes. These communities are close-knit and provide a central organising structure to small communities in Haiti. The priest or Houngan and the priestess (Mambo) are people of great influence within their communities. Beliefs and practices vary between communities, a result of the rural isolation of many areas over the years. There are secret societies which practice black magic of the kind featured in literature and films, but these are not widespread.

The Haitian people are stoic after centuries of struggle. The majority live from day to day, their energies given to just surviving. The women do most of the work, many men sitting around doing little, except perhaps drinking. It is the women who bring the produce to market, balancing huge baskets of goods on their heads. They may be illiterate but they understand money and know the going rate for their wares. They set up stalls by the side of the road or join one of the big street markets. Tinned foods, toothpaste, soap, laundry bars, rice, stock cubes, biscuits and antibiotics - these women sell anything and everything. They buy from wholesalers, mostly Lebanese traders and the whole market is bustling with these business-like women. The street market is where most people with any cash go to buy goods. They buy in small quantities and the cheapest product they can find, mostly poor quality imports. Advertising to the masses is in its infancy here and price is the key purchasing determinant.

The ordinary people are too busy with their daily lives to be politically active, most of the time. However, the will of the people can erupt unexpectedly. The grapevine works quickly in the shanty towns and mob rule can break out with spine-chilling speed. Here a riot, there a strike, there a person lynched. A witness described how one day at the market 'a man must have stolen something - something small, a packet of cigarettes, perhaps. The next moment, a crowd was surrounding him, beating him to death'. In a country where death is a daily occurrence, life is cheap.

However, there is another world in Haiti. The world of around 3000 families, mostly mulatto, who have wealth. They live away from the stench of the shanty towns, many of them in Petionville, in the hills above Port-auPrince. They live in large, well-guarded houses with swimming pools, air-conditioning and maids. They drive air-conditioned cars to the smart French and Creole restaurants and clubs or to friends' houses. It is like a small village - everyone knows everybody. These French-speaking, refined and sophisticated people are astonishingly cosmopolitan. Most have been educated in France, some in the United States. They can talk about art, sport, world events and, of course, they are widely travelled.

Over dinner in a restaurant, they will candidly discuss Haitian history, the economic and political situation and give you their prognosis for the future; they are pessimistic. Few are prepared to stick their necks out, however. They have not survived this long by putting their heads above the parapet. Perhaps they should be admired for their courage in staying when so many of their friends have moved abroad.

The elite control most of the few remaining private enterprises in Haiti. They struggle to compete with cheap imports, often brought in without paying import duties or sales tax (TCA). Their factories are operated with scant regard for the environment or the health and safety of the workers. However they do provide much-needed employment in a country where unemployment is the norm. The people who work there count themselves lucky.

The embargo has been lifted and democratic government restored. The aid agencies are active once again, bringing short-term relief and long-term development help. They have brought literacy programmes, reforestation programmes and hope. The government has made harsh economic pledges to the IMF, in exchange for help. If the government can survive, if its economic programme succeeds, if international aid continues to help the country develop, then the future for Haiti may be positive. However, that is a lot of 'ifs' and in the meantime, the people are angry at the lack of improvement in their lives, Preval has few political allies and Baby Doc is talking of returning home.

Helen Conway, a freelance writer, has worked for Unilever on a number of South American and Caribbean markets, including Haiti.
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Title Annotation:Jean-Claude Duvalier
Author:Conway, Helen
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Previous Article:British nations and regions.
Next Article:The poets and poetry of the 1890s - a millennial view.

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