Haiti begins slide back into anarchy

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The Independent US

It is only when the bodies start to pile up that the world takes notice of Haiti. So the radio journalist Jean Dominique may have performed one last service to his country when he died in a hail of bullets last week: putting Haiti back into the headlines at a time when the country is lurching again into anarchy.

Mr Dominique's death should start alarm bells ringing, said Colin Granderson, the Trinidadian diplomat who had headed an international human-rights monitoring mission to Haiti since 1992. "I hope it brings people to their senses," he said as he left the island last week. "It's time for everybody to sit down in a wide political dialogue. If not, there will be a slow descent into violence and even worse."

Jean Dominique, 69, had been a familiar voice on the airwaves for decades through his station Radio Inter. He broadcast during the long years of the Duvalier dictatorship, and left the country twice after death threats, the last time in 1991 when his friend Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted from the presidency. He returned in 1994 after Aristide was restored to power, at a time when it seemed as if Haiti's future might be brighter.

Now, the US troops who helped Mr Aristide back into power under Operation Restore Democracy are all gone, and democracy isn't looking very healthy either.

Mr Dominique's death was just the latest in a series of killings as the country struggles to survive without most of the appurtenances of a modern civilised state.

There has been no approved budget since 1997. And there has been no effective democracy since President René Preval dissolved parliament in January 1999. Legislative elections that should have taken place last year have been repeatedly postponed.

The suspicion in Haiti is that President Preval would prefer to wait until later this year, when presidential and legislative elections could be held at the same time.

His friend and former boss Mr Aristide was ruled out from a second consecutive term, but could stand again this year. His presence at the polls could help his party, Family Lavalas, to stack up more votes.

Mr Aristide, in comments in Miami last week, said that he favoured a vote sooner rather than later. "We need elections," he said. But, he added: "We must have elections in good conditions. My party is ready to participate in elections as soon as the date is set." He brushed aside suggestions that it was his party supporters who were behind some of the violence. "These are not my supporters," he said. "We know the government of Haiti does not want to have burning tyres in the street or have social disorder. But the legacy of what has come before in my country is a weak judicial system."

That is undoubtedly true. The country's police force is a shambles, say aid officials; the judicial system is worse.

In theory, the United Nations has a mission in Haiti to reorganise the justice system, promote human rights and organise elections, but its finances are virtually non-existent because the US has not paid its share of the expenses. The International Civilian Support Mission in Haiti (MICAH) started work with less than a fifth of its planned strength, and Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, has warned that the operation may have to close.

The US says it wants to pay, but that will be up to the US Congress; and the Congress isn't happy about the lack of elections.

Pressure is building for economic sanctions against Haiti, as politicians in Washington start to lose patience with the country. "We are deeply troubled by the failure of the Haitian government to set a new date for elections," said Peter Romero, the State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. The deadline is the end of May. If there are no polls before then, then the new parliamentary term starts on 12 June, and it will be too late. That "would risk isolating Haiti from the community of democracies and jeopardise future cooperation", said Mr Romero. The US may even apply sanctions.

The intervention in Haiti was touted as one of the most significant achievements of the Clinton administration, but it looks increasingly to have achieved little. Washington seems torn between the urge to declare victory and get the hell out, as it was described during Vietnam, and a genuine desire to sort things out.

If it doesn't, then the same reasons that led America to intervene in the first place may return. There will be more deaths. Recent reports say that the country has once again become a significant hub in cocaine trafficking. It will not be long, if things continue to deteriorate, before the refugee flow starts again.

Mr Dominique's death in fact came at a time when alarm bells were already ringing. It may help to refocus Haitians and those outside on the country's worsening problems.

"You must understand, for Haitians to vote means more than in your country," Mr Dominique told the Miami Herald in 1991, when Aristide was elected. "It's the way for the millions who live in dirt and poverty to prove to themselves that they are human. It is the difference between eternal darkness and light.''

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