Challenges Loom For Preval in Haiti

Saurel Beaujour, who runs an HIV help center, stands by donated food he says neither his organization nor his nation could survive without.
Saurel Beaujour, who runs an HIV help center, stands by donated food he says neither his organization nor his nation could survive without. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Saurel Beaujour, a sprightly man with dark brown eyes and a lightning-quick smile, runs an HIV help center here in the cramped urban core of the Western Hemisphere's worst national AIDS problem.

The antiretroviral drugs he orders often sit for months at port because the two government agencies that must check off on his shipments barely function or communicate with each other. The anti-discrimination laws he wants to push never get anywhere because political turmoil is always toppling the lawmakers he lobbies. The public service messages he tries to spread mostly go unheard because the people he is trying to reach are illiterate or have no electricity to run radios.

Beaujour, for all his indomitable passion, stands at the nexus of the Haitian predicament, a man maddeningly hampered by the problems and inadequacies of a nation ever teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state. This is the quagmire into which Rene Preval, the leader of a political party named after the Haitian Creole word for hope, will wade next month when he takes the oath of office as president.

"Preval's task is colossal," said Robert Fatton Jr., a Haitian-born University of Virginia professor and author of a 2002 book, "Haiti's Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy."

"Everything has to be built," he said, speaking from his office in Charlottesville. "There are no institutions in Haiti. The challenge is really monumental."

Preval, whose plans are vague and whose ambitions are understated, will be forced to confront the problems of a nation with almost no functioning judicial system, corrupt and inept law enforcement, deep poverty and abominable public sanitation. Then there are the violent gangs that rule urban slums, the kidnapping rings and a flourishing drug and money-laundering trade.

There are also tens of thousands of children who do not attend school, hundreds of miles of unpaved or poorly maintained highways and a national budget kept afloat primarily by the largess of international aid groups and foreign countries.

Preval hopes to attract foreign investment to Haiti, but he acknowledges that it "will not happen tomorrow morning." He knows that the dangers in his country scare away well-heeled foreigners, who visit in a protective bubble of armed guards and chauffeurs and are warned by security consultants not to walk the streets alone or take public transportation.

"For businesses, the question is: Why would you go there?" Fatton said. "Infrastructure is nonexistent, and you don't have enough electricity."

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's second-oldest democracy -- only the United States is older -- and it became the world's first black republic after a successful slave revolt in 1804. But its autonomy is limited, at best. Its politics and its day-to-day life are heavily dependent on outside forces -- to maintain order, pay bills and shape policy.

However, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the United States and other countries has yet to produce lasting results in a country where one-third of all children are malnourished, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and foreign intervention is often greeted with skepticism.

"You touch Haiti and it produces warts," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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