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Suffering Haiti *LINK*

one of the photos accompanying this picture shows someone rolling out biscuits made of butter, salt, water, and dirt.

May 5, 2004
Deepening Poverty Breeds Anger and Desperation in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 4 - The pile of garbage behind the spot where Marie Joseph sells tins of tomato paste started out small, the usual primordial goo that coats this grimy capital's streets, binding a putrid mélange.

But in the two months since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected leader, was forced from power by an armed rebellion, the pile has swelled like a rapacious tumor.

"I have never seen anything like this," Ms. Joseph said last week, squatting near the 12-foot-high pile, wrinkling her nose at the stench beneath a pair of gold-rimmed bifocals. "How can we live like this?"

Difficult as it may be to believe, people here say, life in the poorest nation in the hemisphere has gotten worse in the past two months.

Mounds of garbage choke the streets. Electricity in the capital has been scarce for weeks. The police force has fallen deeper into disarray, and crime has spiked, including a rash of kidnappings aimed at wealthy businesspeople. The price of rice, the Haitian staple, has doubled in some parts of the country.

A senior Western diplomat said the biggest concern was that the interim government, led by Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, will face mass unrest over the deteriorating conditions, which could reignite violent clashes between Aristide supporters and rebels, who still occupy large swaths of the country despite the presence of 3,600 foreign troops.

Other than small, symbolic transfers, supporters of the former president and the rebels have both clung steadfastly to their weapons. If violence flares, the diplomat said, the government might not survive the next two or three months.

"The international community needs to help this government, we need to get monetary support to them yesterday," the diplomat said. If this government does not survive, it is not clear what comes after.''

But international help has been slow to arrive. The United States-led force here is to hand over the job of stabilizing Haiti in June to a United Nations force of about 8,000 troops led by Brazil. The brevity of the United States military commitment and the molasses-slow trickle of aid have led many people here to conclude that this decade's effort to rebuild Haiti will be even less successful than the United States effort in the 1990's.

Skeptical Haitians view the unelected government and its foreign backers with a suspicion as brittle as the clay biscuits they now eat.

"No one has ever done anything for us," said Pierre Charlestin, 24, who lives in a grim shantytown that sprang up a decade ago on the grounds of Fort Dimanche, the Duvalier regime's notorious political prison. "Why should we expect anything different now?"

Officials and supporters of the former president's party, Lavalas, say the new government is persecuting them. The party has delayed appointing a representative to the council that will organize elections next year, a delay that could block a crucial step to restoring democracy in Haiti.

Playing on his name, which means "turtle" in French, Prime Minister Latortue acknowledged late last month at a donors' conference that his government's pace had been slow.

"Some say the turtle goes slowly," Mr. Latortue said. "I need you to help us go surely."

Today he faces an exhausted treasury, a vast corrupt and demoralized state work force, wary international donors and lingering doubts about the manner in which Mr. Aristide left the country.

American officials, who provided the plane that took him into him into exile, say Mr. Aristide left willingly to avoid bloodshed. Mr. Aristide has said his departure was a "modern-day kidnapping."

To many people here, Mr. Aristide remains the only legitimate leader they have. "We believe in democracy, and we have a democratically elected leader," said Alix Jean, a Lavalas partisan, at a recent rally at the church in La Saline, the slum where Mr. Aristide once preached his fiery sermons of liberation. "His name is Jean-Bertrand Aristide."

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