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.
Here in Port-au-Prince, where few local police officers are visible, U.N. tanks share the steep, clogged streets with belching pickup trucks and rusting cars brought to the country after failing emission tests in the United States. Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers scan the cityscape from behind the barrels of automatic weapons. The U.N. forces, which have engaged in open warfare with gangs in the Cite Soleil slum, are unpopular and often accused by Haitians of provoking shootouts.
The peacekeeping forces' term here was recently extended to mid-August, and a high-ranking diplomat says it is likely they will stay at least two more years.
"The key," he said, "is when are Haitians able to handle law and order?"
But Preval is already staking out a contrary position. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, he said in a recent interview, "is there with its tanks, and it cannot solve the problem."
Preval has been consulting with diplomats about ways to attack the gang problem in Cite Soleil and other parts of the country, where several ports are dominated by gang lords who make large profits as conduits for Colombian drugs headed to the United States. According to diplomats and experts, drug money is one of the major underpinnings of Haiti's troubled economy.
It will be a delicate mission for Preval to take on gangs, particularly those in Cite Soleil, where he benefited greatly from the support of gang leaders who held rallies in his behalf before the Feb. 7 election. Some observers say they believe an amnesty for previous crimes may be the only solution.
Even the election, which embodied hopes for stabilization two years after the upheaval that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was a stuttering step forward. Fraud allegations spurred days of violent demonstrations. It took a compromise brokered by international diplomats -- a deal that sidestepped the requirement that one candidate get a majority of votes to avert a runoff -- to award the presidency to Preval and to stop the country from descending into anarchy. Preval was granted the majority he needed only after unmarked ballots, which had previously been counted, were thrown out.
"It's not the jump into elections that many Haitians and foreigners would have hoped for," a diplomat said. "But it's an advance toward it."
Now, everyone is waiting to see what Preval, 63, can do with his second presidency, five years after he left office with few accomplishments and retired to his remote country home. The pressure will be enormous, because the poor who form his political base expect him to change their lot, a goal he is unlikely to accomplish without riling Haiti's elite.
Preval is fond of comparing Haiti to a Coca-Cola bottle -- the narrow end is the elite, he says, who have all the power, and the wide bottom is the poor, who have none. The country is now standing on the narrow end, he often says, turning over a bottle and grinning as it falls.
At a downtown construction site recently, amid the corrugated metal shanties that serve as homes and shops, a Preval supporter named Pierre Joseph said, "There is no one else who can get us out of this situation."
Joseph, who makes $24 a month operating heavy equipment, is, by Haitian standards, almost prosperous. His assistant makes $7 a month.
Preval has been careful not to promise too much to people like Joseph, and those who are even poorer. In fact, he's campaigned on little more than pledges to build more schools, improve social services and create a functioning government.
"We're not going to promise the sky," said Jacques Edouard Alexis, a top campaign adviser who served as prime minister during Preval's first term.
But even the basics may be nearly impossible to deliver. In Port-au-Prince, a third of the people have no access to latrines and simply use open canals as toilets. The latrines that are in place often back up because of lack of maintenance, rendering them useless.
Given the challenges, it is a good move not to raise expectations too high, Fatton said. But Preval will have to show some results fast if he hopes to stabilize a populace fractured among more than 100 political parties.
"There is a small window of opportunity for Preval, but it's one that could close very quickly if the government is not perceived as a government of national reconciliation," Fatton said. "If things continue to be violent and you continue to have kidnappings, the honeymoon will be over soon."
Beaujour has no choice but to hope that this time, finally, Haiti will find equilibrium.
"Because there are no stable institutions, we cannot advocate because there is no one to advocate to," he said. "If there was a stable government, we, as an association, could put pressure on that government to increase spending."
His eyes shifted downward and he frowned. He has hoped this before.