After jailing most of its vocal opponents one week ago, the Haitian government today began an uneasy meeting with the international donors that foot its development bill.
To protest the massive roundup, the largest since President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier took office in 1971, several donor countries have scaled down the level of representatives attending the talks. While they stopped short of postponing the meeting, diplomats here from the United States, Canada and West Germany have been told not to mince their words.
The United States, by far the largest single contributor to the Haitian budget, has canceled the visit of higher level Washington officials and privately and publicly pressed for the release of nearly 200 people picked up by police since Nov. 28.
The detained, all of whom are held incommunicado, and without charges, include opposition leaders, teachers, doctors, priests, students and journalists who are preceived as critics of the government. As a result, the government has silenced the entire independent press, above all three outspoken radio stations that had a wide following in this country where illiteracy reaches 80 percent.
The wave of arrests of people who are moderates by most Latin American standards has evoked memories of the terror of the president's father, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Its timing has baffled diplomats attending talks this week.
"It was very clumsy and a big slap in the face for us," said one annoyed Washington official. "I doubt that the donors will be enthused to listen to Haiti's pleas for more assistance now."
At stake at this week's meeting is not only renewal of this year's $137 million worth of multilateral and bilateral foreign aid, but also an increase for 1981. Of this amount the United States has contributed $33.2 million, of which $8.7 million was pledged following this summer's hurricane.
Officials in the powerful police, the main pillar of the Duvalier government, have been deeply irritated by what they regard as an abuse of freedom by a budding independent press. In stenciled weeklies and on radio programs, commentators have criticized the government for its "inhumane" handling of the Haitian boat people and for its responsibility for an economic crisis that makes life even harsher in the hemisphere's poorest nation.
The crackdown apparently stemmed from official fear that a dangerous situation was developing and antigovernment demonstrations would take place to coincide with the donor meetings here.
In the eyes of some diplomats, hardliners in the government also have felt their hand considerably strengthened by the election of Ronald Reagan. Following the election, the progovernment media here suddenly produced their first bitter attacks on President Carter.
But others said that while the Haitian government clearly overreacted to its critics, it is confident that whatever happens, Washington has no choice but to pump large sums of money into this Caribbean nation to avoid destabilization and a possible communist threat.
So far, however, U.S. officials have scoffed at Haiti's claim that with the crackdown it has "dismantled a network of communist agitators" and prevented the "kidnapiing of foreign diplomats." One prominent foreigner here dismissed this version as nothing but a "red herring" and said that Haiti was in effect extracting "protection money" from the United States. But he added that some Haitian officials genuinely believe a communist conspiracy against Haiti is in the works.
The arrests on the eve of the aid talks among Haiti, donor nations and international agencies have revived the debate surrounding foreign aid to repressive governments. In the past five years, international aid to this country, which is one of the poorest in the world, has multiplied fivefold. But the combination of rising world prices and a small economic boom here has produced inflation that has made the poor even poorer.
While new investments have created about 50,000 jobs -- most at minimum salaries of $13.20 per week -- the majority of the people have seen their purchasing power drop by 45 percent over this period.
Therefore, development experts here argue, the bottom line of foreign assistance has meant somewhat less hunger for the poor but above all more prosperity for the small business community and the Duvalier family's fast-growing economic empire, estimated at $200 million, most of which is abroad.
American and Canadian officials here who belive that aid serves as leverage and in Haiti has helped create the more liberal political climate of the past few years, say despondently they see no answer for the dilemma in which they are now caught. To cut aid in response to the Haitian police action, they say, would only serve to tighten the vicious circle because as the economic situation worsens, and causes hunger and protests, this will lead to greater repression in the end.
Even before the crackdown, however, aid experts have had already anticipated what one described as "a good deal of unpleasantness" at the donor meeting.
"Haiti will be put on the hot seat for poor fiscal management," said one. "They have violated every promise they made to us last year."
Two years ago the donor countries -- which include the United States, Canada, France, West Germany, Israel and Taiwan -- told the government bluntly they had no confidence in the honesty of its bookkeeping, its economic policies and its apparent disinterest in a development plan.
Last year, Haiti promised to reform its budget process and open the books of the largely secret tax collection system, which is believed to finance the Duvalier family, its patronage and its security forces.
"It's a double problem. They don't have the expertise, and they have not opened their books," one prominent diplomat here said. "If we did not watch like hawks, they would mismanage the foreign bonds."
Experts here say that aside from filtering off relatively small amounts of foreign aid money, the government has managed its economy badly and embarked on projects that appear designed for the benefit of local businessmen and politicians rather than making economic sense.
Construction of expensive sugar and textile mills, for example, has been officially approved even though Haiti does not produce enough cane or cotton to keep them in business and will have to import the raw materials. Spanish fishing vessels were bought for $10 million even though, according to United Nations experts, there are no fishing grounds in Haitian waters. But the purchase produced spinoff money for a few people in high places, one of these experts claimed.