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Haiti Settles Down To Misery As Usual

by Jane Regan
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(IPS) GONAIVES -- The flies hovering over the stinking, green open sewers here do not appear to notice any change. Nor do the naked children, their distended bellies and orange hair sure signs of malnutrition, worms or worse.

Still, life is different here, in Haiti's fourth-largest city, halfway up the coast, where some 200,000 people try to eke out a living by fishing or buying and selling produce and other goods.

It is not just that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is no longer president and that U.S.-installed Gerard Latortue, a native of this dusty and dilapidated port town, has taken over with a largely technocrat cabinet.

Nor is it the presence of 150 or so French Legionnaires, whose sorties turn into parades when they are inevitably followed by scores of men, women and children on foot and bicycle.

The real change is that after months under virtual siege, life in Gonaives is getting back to normal.

Businesses and schools are open. The streets hustle and bustle with street merchants hawking piles of eggplant, tomatoes, used blue jeans and shoes, toothpaste and tomato paste from the United States.

The dozens of huge barricades of refrigerators, car hulks and garbage that blocked "National Highway Number 1," a two-lane road that in many places is more a riverbed than a highway, have been cleared away. Buses and trucks roll through town on their way north or south, careening wildly, barely missing the motor scooter taxis, students and travellers clogging the narrow route.

And the heavily armed street gang-turned-rebel army that patrolled the streets after taking over the city Feb. 5 have put down their guns, at least for now.

Sunday, the gutted shells of the jail and police stations were the only reminders of the three weeks of violence that left scores dead before Aristide's Feb. 29 resignation, a move the ousted leader calls a U.S.- and French-rigged coup d'etat.

The buildings have been picked clean of desks, beds, tin roofing, window frames, even cement blocks, by armies of the destitute, who live in a city where crumbling and grandiose two-story wooden colonial houses recall a more noble past.

The new prime minister did not even mention the pillage during his visit Sunday. He helicoptered in with a U.S. and French military escort to tour the streets and speak to a sea of thousands, who cheered wildly as he promised housing, a paved highway and other improvements.

On the stage, rebel leaders, who include known murderers, torturers and convicted criminals, sported suits and ties and grinned as they rubbed shoulders with Latortue and the new cabinet members.

Hunched in front of a charcoal fire a few streets away, however, life went on as usual for Marie Josue.

"I had five mouths to feed before Aristide left, and I still have five mouths to feed," said the 41-year-old as she stirred a bubbling mass of brown oil sprinkled with bits of "griot" or fried pork -- really more fat than pork.

Josue lives in a two-room hovel near the salt mines wedged between the sea and the slum of Raboteau, the home base of the 'Cannibal Army' gang, whose members, now in neckties, were absorbed into the National Liberation Front rebel "army" of ex-soldiers and policemen that took over half of the country's police stations during the uprising.

Josue's street, floors and house are all made of the same mud. Her once-colorful dress is a U.S. cast-off. As one hand stirred her greasy fare with a heavy wooden spoon, the other waved flies away from the face of her youngest, a dusty-faced two-year-old named Dieudonne, which means "gift of God." None of her children is in school.

"Aristide was a crook, a drug-dealer. He didn't care about us. He made promises and then lived his beautiful life with his beautiful wife and his beautiful children," Josue said.

"Now he's gone and a new one is in." She jerked her thumb in the direction of the city's main square. "And soldiers are here. But I don't know if anything will change."

Realistically, the most Josue can hope for is that a few more gourdes (Haiti's currency -- 40 gourdes = 1 U.S. dollar) come into her slum so her neighbors can buy the griot she sells. In this impoverished city there are few jobs, paved roads, public schools or doctors, and there will not be anytime soon.

Two miles away, things are a little more positive at Chez Frantz, where Latortue and his entourage of ministers, counsellors, police and ex-rebel gang members was scheduled to stop for lunch.

A dozen employees stirred vast vats of griot, set tables, swept the yard.

Chez Frantz sits on Date Avenue, a boulevard once lined with grand Date trees. A few dying Dates and dozens of stumps serve as reminders of the city's past, its legacy as Haiti's "City of Independence," where ex-slaves won their freedom from France 200 years ago.

On Saturday, French soldiers patrolled the dusty avenue on foot and in armored vehicles sporting gun turrets. This is the third time in 100 years that foreign troops have trod the country's streets and highways.

"On the security level, things are fine now," said Eric Thiesfeld, 52, co-owner of the restaurant and guesthouse that bears his late father's name. "Things are mostly back to normal, although prices are still a little high."

Thiesfeld, whose family has been in Gonaives for generations, sits on several impromptu committees set up after Aristide left and local officials fled town. Lawyers, judges, teachers and ex-gang members have organized themselves into groups to try to get the city running again, he said.

"Now civil society is taking a role," Thiesfeld noted as he supervised the last-minute preparations. "Maybe there can be more control over the politicians and the police now."

During the previous four years, contraband flowed through the gang-controlled port and a local airstrip was sometimes used as a cocaine drop point. Police and the Lavalas (Aristide's party) "nomenclature," as Thiesfeld calls them, all got a cut, he said.

Businesses like his barely hung on as the economy spiralled downward.

"To make things different this time around, we need disciplined police and ministers," Thiesfeld concluded. "It will be very difficult because Haitians don't like discipline."

His 89-year-old mother, sitting in a nearby chair so she could hear the conversation, nodded.

The challenges seem enormous for interim leader Latortue, who has promised elections within eight months.

In a nation deadlocked politically for the three years prior to Aristide's flight, the new prime minister's cabinet has already been condemned as non-representative by both the political opposition and Lavalas supporters.

One hundred sixty kilometers off Haiti's coast, the former president is "visiting" for up to 10 weeks in neighboring Jamaica, where he continues to claim he remains Haiti's constitutional ruler. And to date, international donors and lenders still have not restored $500 million in aid they blocked after "flawed" Senate elections in 2000.

Suddenly the prime minister's convoy roared into the parking lot. Police with rifles and submachine guns jumped out and the robust prime minister, until last week an economist and consultant in the Florida, got out and made his way through the sea of admirers and job-seekers.

That day, Chez Frantz would serve at least 100 meals, but on Monday they would be back to cooking up only a handful of fish or goat stews. The restaurant has lost money for the past eight months, Thiesfeld's wife Mona said.

"Things won't change tomorrow. Not immediately. I don't see how it can happen," she added after serving Saturday's meals. She looked up and out towards dusty Date Avenue.

Dozens of hungry-looking boys loitered around the gate.

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Albion Monitor March 23, 2004 (

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