Sunday, July 19, 2009

Calm Brings Optimism to "Failed" Haiti

Tentative Calm Brings Optimism to a 'Failed' Haiti

Michael Deibert
(Photos by John Carroll)


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | The dark afternoon clouds that gradually roll over Haiti's capital herald the beginning of the rainy season, but the early-morning bursts of sunshine might more accurately capture the national mood these days.

While the country remains desperately poor, it is more peaceful than it has been in years - no small feat in a place with a volatile political history. Some of the credit goes to the United Nations and President Rene Preval.

A few years ago, the authority of the state did not extend much beyond Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs controlled neighborhoods. Since the inauguration of Mr. Preval in May 2006, however, a fragile calm has prevailed.

The capital's boisterous population again feels safe enough to patronize downtown bars and kerosine-lit roadside stands late into the evening. Billboards that once extolled the infallibility of a succession of "maximum leaders" now carry messages about the importance of respect between the population and the police as well as decry discrimination against the disabled.

Ruled by priest-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide twice in the 1990s and from 2001 until his ouster in February 2004, Haiti saw violent urban warfare between heavily armed Aristide partisans and security forces, who inflicted collective punishment under an interim government in power from 2004 until Mr. Preval's inauguration.

Working with a 9,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, Haiti's government has made great strides in recent months in professionalizing security forces that were historically brutal and corrupt.

"The capacity of the police has improved quite significantly ... and the image of the police has begun to change within the society," says Hedi Annabi, a Tunisian diplomat who heads MINUSTAH.

"The level of respect for basic freedoms, such as freedom of the press, is at a historically remarkable level," he said.

In addition, according to MINUSTAH, the number of kidnappings has fallen dramatically, from more than 500 in 2006 to about 50 during the first six months of this year.

A projected five-year U.N.-supported police-reform program is in its third year of implementation, providing Haiti with 9,200 police officers - a number projected to grow to 10,000 by the end of this year and to 14,000 by the end of 2011.

The force began with only 3,500, of whom more than 1,500 had to be dismissed for poor conduct.

The surge in police recruits is a far cry from the situation that existed between September 2004 and June 2005, during which a police officer was killed every five days, according to U.N. statistics.

Some observers here credit the leadership of Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis, a respected civil society activist, who was appointed prime minister in September 2008.

Ms. Pierre-Louis lauds the U.N. mission, which is heavily Latin American, for helping to stabilize the country.

"It's a new paradigm for regional cooperation," she told The Washington Times. "They have their own interests, of course, but let's make the best of the opportunities that are offered to us."

In a country where voting has sometimes boded ill for civil order, midterm elections in April, with a runoff in June, for Haiti's Senate were poorly attended but largely peaceful, with poll workers and observers directing voters and tabulating votes in a professional fashion. The desultory participation, however, led Mr. Preval to warn that Haiti's "political class should wonder about this abstention" as he cast his own ballot at a Port-au-Prince school.

Haiti still faces massive challenges. Largely deforested, the country was battered by Hurricanes Hanna and Ike in 2008, which collectively killed at least 600 people.

Beyond the capital, after the shabby-chic resorts on the Cote des Arcadins, Haiti's Route Nationale 1 is a pot-holed, crumbling wreck long before it reaches the northern cities of Gonaives and Cap-Haitien.

Poverty and the scramble to find basic necessities remain a constant fact of life for the majority of the 8.5 million population. The social peace that has been restored is fragile and could easily fray if tangible gains are not seen in the day-to-day lives of Haitians.

One exception to the national calm are noisy and occasionally violent demonstrations by university students and other political pressure groups in the capital.

Haiti's Senate voted in May to support a law raising the minimum wage to about $4.90 per day, a 300 percent increase. Mr. Preval has not signed the measure, citing his fear that it would jeopardize Haiti's already fragile employment sector. In response, students have held regular protests, during which dozens of cars have been burned and protesters have squared off against U.N. troops and Haitian security forces. Two demonstrators have been killed.

"They chose not to listen to us, and we were obligated to peacefully mobilize about our concerns and the question about the minimum salary," said Beneche Martial, a student at the state university's medical school.

Nevertheless, there is a tenuous hopefulness here for the first time in many years.

In June, the Inter-American Development Bank approved $120 million in grants for 2010 to help Haiti improve infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention.

Also last month, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank collectively canceled $1.2 billion owed to them by Haiti, erasing almost two-thirds of the country's outstanding debt.

The scourge of HIV/AIDS is also diminishing, with the rate of infection among pregnant women halved from 6.2 percent in 1993 to 3.1 percent, according to the U.N.

A U.N. report in December suggested that revived garment production might point the way for economic revival, saying that "it is striking how modest are the impediments to competitiveness, relative to the huge opportunities offered by the fundamentals" in the country.

For a nation viewed as a potential "failed state" not long ago, such news cannot help but be encouraging.

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