Published Saturday, April 8, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Journalist's Murder Points to Haiti's Slide into ChaosBy Don Bohning
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The assassination Monday of Jean Dominique, Haiti's best-known radio commentator, put an exclamation point to the country's descent toward anarchy and is raising fears of even worse violence ahead. The murder occurred as political instability accelerated, fueled by a collapsing economy and a spirited controversy over the timing of parliamentary and presidential elections.
"We're going to have major turbulence if the situation doesn't improve," said Claude Beauboeuf, a Haitian consultant, university lecturer and radio commentator who holds a doctorate in economics and international affairs from the University of Miami. "You could see low-intensity civil war with many groups having weapons, and maybe even state collapse. Then you have total anarchy."
Haiti's recurring cycles of violence are usually accompanied by a flood of boat people desperately trying to reach the United States, and this one may be no different. A recent poll by Radio Metropole and the newspaper Le Nouvelliste showed that almost 70 percent of Haitians would leave if they could. For the moment, there has been no increase in the number of refugee boats intercepted; nor has increased boat-building activity been detected.
But there is little question that Haiti is mired in its worst crisis since September 1994, when U.S. troops helped oust a military regime and restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president.
FACTORS IN CRISIS
A number of elements has contributed to the prevailing atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty: There has been no Parliament since January 1999, when President Rene Preval effectively dissolved it, leaving Haiti in what a U.S. State Department report called a "constitutionally irregular" situation. The government itself is a de facto one, without final parliamentary approval for Prime Minister Jacques Alexis and his Cabinet, who were installed by decree.
The economy is near ruin. Haiti's currency, the gourde, had remained stable for several years at about 16 to one U.S. dollar, but in the past four months -- because of rising petroleum prices and deficit government spending -- it has depreciated to 20 to one and, at one point, reached nearly 23 to one.
That has sent the cost of living soaring, with the price of basic commodities rising 15 to 25 percent in the past two months, according to an informal survey. A downtown retail businessman, who asked that neither his name nor his business be used, said his sales had dropped 33 percent in February and March after the relative boom that followed restoration of Aristide's presidency.
Beauboeuf said anxiety has spread across economic classes: "There is a lot of frustration, disenchantment and even despair. Not just the traditional poor but the middle class and petite bourgeoisie. It's an unprecedented situation, socially, politically and economically."
POLICE IN DISARRAY
The crisis comes as the Haitian National Police, created to replace a hated army dissolved by Aristide when he returned in 1994 after three years in exile, is also in growing disarray. Its strength is listed at 6,200, the only government security force for a country of eight million people, although some estimates put its actual numbers at fewer then 4,000.
Additionally, police are handicapped by a dysfunctional justice system in which prisoners are held for years without hearings. And because of the economic pinch, the government is in arrears on its payroll, including the police.
The last residue of U.S. troops stationed in Haiti left the country in January. The mandates of two international monitoring and advisory missions for police, justice and human rights expired March 15. A combined successor mission is not yet operational, due to lack of funding.
"It's uncharted territory. There is nobody to put on the brakes" to the deteriorating situation, another foreign official said. "No institutions. No army. No political system. Nobody who has any moral authority. The moral authority comes from a gun . . . there's nothing or anybody out there to put a check on it. At least Jean Dominique had some kind of moral authority."
Increasingly, in Haiti and abroad, blame for the current state of affairs is being placed on Aristide and President Rene Preval because of their perceived efforts to manipulate the electoral timetable to assure that Aristide's Lavalas Movement takes control of both Parliament and the presidency. This week, however, Aristide said for the first time that he favors holding elections soon, a development that could alter the electoral schedule and improve Haiti's political picture.
The government and officials of Preval's Lavalas party have become irritated as international and domestic pressure increases to hold elections in time to install a new Parliament by June 12, the date for the opening of the second annual session of Parliament.
"The international community has been trying for such a long time to turn itself into an opposition to Preval," Yvon Neptune, a Lavalas spokesman and candidate, said. "It is responsible for this thing." One businessman dismissed the whole controversy as moot, contending that November's U.S. elections are more likely "to decide what happens here than the elections here."
©2002 NCHR -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED -- Last updated: 01 May 2007