IN PORT-AU-PRINCE--In Haiti's sweltering summer heat, even those sitting idle in the tropical shade sweat profusely. Idleness is common, with unemployment nearing 80 percent and, amazingly, growing. The Haitian economy is in shambles and getting worse. Most Haitians subsist below the "absolute poverty level."
Western leaders are sweating over Haiti, too. The Clinton administration is increasingly nervous about the island nation's future as a November withdrawal of U.N. troops-including U.S. military police-nears. The United Nations suspended aid because of Senate elections that were called off in May and have not yet been rescheduled, but U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and other U.S. officials trooped to Haiti in August with promises of aid and advice. The State Department's Brian Atwood announced that $24 million more from U.S. taxpayers would be heading to Haiti. The road between government largesse and tough love seems paved with enough foreign aid to make Haiti the Western Hemisphere's largest welfare dependent.
In January 1995 international governments pledged $1.2 billion for economic development activities in Haiti. Half of that amount has been distributed. The United States, the most generous partner in the program, will spend $80 million in Haiti this year alone to promote political and economic reforms.
The program, called "Operation Uphold Democracy," is a byproduct of the 1994 U.S. military intervention known as "Operation Restore Democracy" that put Jean-Bertrand Aristide back in power as president. During last year's U.S. presidential race, Vice President Al Gore called the policy toward Haiti "one of the most deft uses of diplomacy and military force in combination that you will find anywhere in the annals of the history of this country."
But instead of promoting democracy, U.S. policy toward Haiti seems to be bankrolling power elites while denying wage-earners and farmers the opportunity to grow their own economy.
In addition to economic and political assistance, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budgeted $28.6 million in food aid to Haiti this year. Scott Kleinberg, a foreign affairs officer attached to USAID in Haiti for the past two years, reports, "We give food to the most impoverished people-those who could not afford to buy the food. So a case can be made that we are not taking away business from local food producers." But he admitted to WORLD that the case may not be stong: "Some of the U.S. food aid may in fact be taking markets away from local farmers."
Others estimate that as many as half of Haiti's 6 million people rely, at least in part, on international relief from government, church, and relief agencies for their daily food. According to one rural pastor, Jean Pierre Ronuel, "Foreign food has reduced the malnutrition rates; however, local farmers are starving."
Charities and churches supply a large part of the aid to Haiti. According to USAID, three private relief organizations alone-Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency-provide a combined food aid that feeds one million Haitian people a day.
Charlie Gardner from Agape Flights, a ministry-support service in Sarasota, Fla., says, "We fly in millions of dollars of relief material into Haiti each year and support about 200 different mission organizations in Haiti. I would estimate there are over 400 ministry agencies currently active in Haiti."
Asked if all of this foreign aid could turn Haiti into a permanent welfare state, Mr. Kleinberg said, "That is not the intent of U.S. aid. However, we believe it is exactly what President Ren' Preval wants. He would like to create a welfare state in order to placate the Haitian people-to distract them from the fact that needed political and economic reforms are not happening."
President Preval, who came into office last year confidently proclaiming his reforms would get the economy going, has run into opposition. Critics claim his so-called "structural adjustment" reforms are nothing more than "neo-liberal, voodoo economics." Mr. Preval, widely considered a puppet of his predecessor Mr. Aristide, has abandoned his own political party. Opponents are gridlocking the government by refusing to endorse his chosen candidate for prime minister.
The Republique d'Haiti was created in 1804 by an uprising of a half-million slaves. In the course of the revolution, the Haitians defeated French, British, and Spanish armies and established the world's first independent black nation. During its nearly 200 year-history, Haiti has experimented with virtually every form of government, including two empires, a kingdom, numerous republics, and dictatorships. The 40-plus heads of state in Haiti's history have, almost without exception, regarded state finance as their personal property, making "kleptocracy" often the more favored way to describe Haiti's government.
In a system where anything of value is likely to be appropriated by the ruling class, corruption eventually reaches even the lowest levels. A policeman stopped me on the street to issue trumped-up charges of misconduct. After 20 minutes of discussion and a discreet payment of 150 Gourdes ($10 U.S.), I bought my exoneration.
"This is how the economy works," says Jo‰l Beaucejour, a pastor from the southern Haitian town of L'og"ne. "Those that have privileged positions, even at low levels, can extract payments of graft and bribery."
And what do the 80 percent who are unemployed do to survive? "They transact. A man will borrow a dollar to eat for a couple of days. Then he will borrow $2 from the next person to pay back the $1 and eat for a few days more. Eventually, he will sell some goods for a small profit."
The transaction economy, based on deals, negotiations, trading, gambling, and thievery, is endemic and completely non-productive. It thrives alongside foreign aid. The massive importation of food, clothing, and other relief goods into Haiti feeds a transaction economy as the aid material is bartered and sold again and again on the streets. The price of a product is pushed higher each time it changes hands.
When asked about the high unemployment, one man in the village of Cayes Jacmal responds by quoting a Haitian proverb in his Creole language: "Si travay te bon bagay, moun rich ta praul' lontau." It means, "If work was a good thing, the rich would have grabbed it long ago." Mr. Beaucejour adds this explanation, "The Bible offers two reasons for poverty. One, laziness. Second, the corruption and wickedness of the rich. It is not that our people choose to be idle. The people are paralyzed into inaction by the long history of exploitation by the government and the ruling elite."
These very conditions of high unemployment and low wages could make Haiti a manufacturer's paradise. Foreign corporations have counted on profit margins of at least 30 percent from their Haitian operations, prompting some to call Haiti the land of "opportunism." Rawlings Sports Company makes and exports 15 million baseballs in its Haitian factory each year. With labor costs of about 10 cents per baseball, company officials readily admit they'd rather not make baseballs in the United States again.
Disney opened garment factories in Haiti to take advantage of the low wages. But after protesters in London and New York claimed "Mickey Mouse is a Rat," Disney's largest subcontractor here abandoned its operations last month, bringing to more than 7,000 the number of jobs lost due to such international pressure. The Disney subcontractor's decision alone turned 2,300 out of the sweatshops and into the shade, where the poverty is no less