Sanctions drive brings Haiti to the edge of ruin: Patrick Cockburn in Port-au-Prince found the army has reason to publicise the plight of the poor

Patrick Cockburn
Sunday 04 October 2015 11:33

ON the Massacre River that divides Haiti from the Dominican Republic more than 1,000 people earn their living by swimming from one bank to the other every day. On each trip they make a small profit by smuggling a gallon or two of petrol in a plastic container into Haiti, where the United Nations embargo designed to bring down the military government has forced up prices.

Four months after it was introduced the embargo is biting hard. Few parts of Port-au- Prince have more than a few hours of electricity a day. In provincial towns it is impossible to make a telephone call. Almost all factories are closed.

Sanctions, imposed on 18 October after the military government refused to allow the return of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide, are enforced by nine naval vessels, including six American, which stop and search ships suspected of carrying contraband. The UN Security Council is likely to introduce even more stringent sanctions in the next few weeks, blocking Haiti's few remaining exports, freezing the assets of military leaders and limiting commercial flights.

Both big business and up- country peasants have no doubt that the embargo, and above all the lack of fuel, is having a devastating effect on the economy. Jean Baker, whose factories used to sell clothing to the US, says that out of 50,000 jobs in assembly plants three years ago, only 6,000 are left today. Some foreign-owned businesses have already set up new factories in Mexico or the Dominican Republic. Even the rum distillery works only every second day.

In the main Port-au-Prince hospital staff were on strike at the weekend in protest at not being paid since December. Haiti has long been the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but malnutrition is now becoming common. In Le Pretre, a mountain village in the south-west, the number of malnourished attending the local clinic has risen from a handful a few years ago to 500 .

Lack of fuel hits peasant farmers badly. They often cannot afford paraffin for their lamps. Tap-taps, the gaily- painted minibuses which are the main method of transport for the poor, now cost four or five times what they did six months ago. Smuggling ensures there is some petrol, at a cost of about dollars 12 ( pounds 8) a gallon, and a few are making money out of the shortages. A businessman who needed 3,000 gallons found a man who had bought a school bus, ripped out the seats and replaced them with 60 oil drums which he filled up in the Dominican Republic. Payments for smuggled goods are cash down, leading to a shortage of large-denomination notes.

Dominican officials take a big rake-off. One told a smuggler, who complained of the size of the bribe demanded, that he was planning 'to build a house out of the profits of the Haitian crisis'. The US is pressing the Dominicans to stop the leaks in the embargo but the UN naval blockade cannot prevent small coasters moving fuel along the Haitian coast to ports such as Jacmel and Cap Hatien.

Will the embargo force political change? The top 100 army officers are probably the last Haitians to suffer from fuel or food shortages.

But they are not totally immune to the economic collapse. Big business, a critical ally of the military and which largely supported the overthrow of President Aristide, now wants a compromise. Petionville, a suburb above Port-au-Prince where most of the elite live, is short of water because there is no electric power to pump it up the hill.

A curious aspect of the embargo is that the army, not normally much concerned at the poverty of the mass of Haitians, now finds it in its interest to publicise their suffering and blame the embargo.

WASHINGTON - After days of pressure from the Clinton administration, President Aristide has agreed to meet a group of visiting Haitian parliamentarians who have a plan to resolve the country's political crisis, Reuter reports.

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