Thursday, February 22, 2007

In Haiti, abductions hold nation hostage

Manuel Roig-Franzia:

One year after a presidential election that generated optimism and marked only the second peaceful handover of power in Haitian history, Port-au-Prince is a city of fear.

Despite the presence of thousands of U.N. troops and a new military offensive to root out gangs, armed thugs still rule much of this hilly capital, where many of the 2 million residents live in tin or cinder-block shacks. A swarm of recent kidnappings is terrorizing residents and scaring away foreign investment.

Dozens of schools closed in December after students were kidnapped in a series of incidents and a school bus was hijacked. That month, at least 100 people were reported kidnapped, the most since August, when 115 were abducted. Victim advocates say the real numbers may be much higher; once freed, people often are afraid to go to the police.

Haiti's government has been powerless to stop the crisis. International advisers describe the police force and judicial system as critically dysfunctional and profoundly corrupt.

"We are a failed state -- our institutions are bad, they don't work," said Kesner F. Pharel, a Haitian economist who was trained in the United States and runs a business consulting firm in Port-au-Prince. "It is crucial for Haiti to solve the security problem if we have any hope of making progress."

The kidnapping plague, which began in 2004 after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and peaked during the past six months, is the latest horror in a long history of upheaval that has sealed Haiti's position as the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. A hip destination for the adventurous rich in the 1970s -- a place where Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones hung out and where tourists lounged at the Club Med -- Haiti is now a barely functioning country, dependent on the largess of international donors for two-thirds of its budget. The United States, which provides $200 million a year, is Haiti's largest bilateral donor.

Decades of coups and political instability have ruined Haiti's economy and tourism industry, leaving factories closed and once-thriving beach resorts abandoned. According to the International Monetary Fund, 76 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 per day and 55 percent of those live on less than 44 cents a day.

Many here had hoped for stabilization after the election last February of President René Préval, a soft-spoken agronomist who held the presidency from 1996 to 2001 and who promised reconciliation among 100 political parties. But crime has soared under Préval, exacting its heaviest toll on the poor and working class, who cannot afford ransoms or the bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles that shield every movement of Haiti's entrenched elite.

U.N. arrests wanted gang leader in Haitian slum


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