The Broader Picture: Escape from Port-Au-Prince

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The Independent Culture
SINCE it became clear last month that democracy was again being denied them, that Aristide, the little priest the vast majority elected in 1990, could not come home, Haitians have packed into and on to any vehicle they

could find to flee a stepped-up reign of terror their experience had taught them was inevitable. The inhabitants of Port-au-Prince crammed into

buses, or tap-taps, gaily painted with slogans such as 'C'est la vie' and 'Thank you, Lord', and often, ironically, the stars and stripes of the American flag, and headed for the countryside they considered marginally more safe than the city. Others strained to haul hugely heaped carts. Straight- backed women, who learnt as girls to balance anything from four dozen

eggs to huge buckets of water on their heads, piled their belongings into whatever boxes they could find.

When the international embargo caused petrol and diesel supplies to dry up, even the tap-taps began to disappear from the streets. But there were plenty of the top-of-the-range American and Japanese-made four-wheel- drive vehicles with tinted windows which are favoured by the small but powerful elite (Haiti's pot-holed roads make BMWs and Mercedes impractical). The rich had no trouble finding petrol. Supplies filtered in some mysterious fashion through military and customs controls on both sides of the border with the Dominican Republic; the pounds 10 a gallon that the elite were forced to pay caused them little hardship.

Down in the slums, which still bear such optimistic names as Cite Soleil (Sun City), Brooklyn and Boston, prices were also going up. The basic diet remained the same; beans and rice. But in the last few weeks, costs have quadrupled. The country's per capita income is a dollar a day, by far the lowest in the Western hemisphere. That, of course, is the average. Many rarely even see a dollar.

'They are seven million people held hostage by a few thousand thugs,' a United States diplomat said last week. Such is the nature of politics and diplomacy, however, that the US warships the starving people of Haiti see offshore can give no comfort. On the contrary, the ships have helped pick up desperate people in leaking, overcrowded wooden boats, fleeing the nightly terror killings of rum-swigging, straw-hatted gunmen, and then sent these refugees back to the regime they had risked their lives to escape.

If they were Cubans, they would be taken to Miami, fed and granted political asylum. Fidel Castro, after all, is a communist, and his island is one step closer within America's 'backyard'.

Famine and fear of random assassinations by the reborn Tontons Macoutes of Papa Doc Duvalier, now known as attaches, are not, the United States judges, enough to justify egalitarian treatment for Haitians. An army general who defies Washington, the UN and the world; a police colonel accused of multi-million dollar cocaine trafficking who favours hanging detainees by their feet before beating them with batons; and the thugs in sunglasses who rule the streets: these have not so far irked the US as much as the bearded Cuban leader.-

(Photograph omitted)