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Haitians Await Better Times Aid

By Douglas Farah
The Washington Post

In this dusty, windswept wide spot in the road, there is no running water, electricity or health care. There is a school, but it has no chairs, desks or books. People from several villages gather here twice a week for a market, but since there is little money, little is bought or sold.

All Haiti is waiting to see what happens now that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been restored to power. But it is in the hundreds of villages like this one 30 miles northwest of the capital that the ambitious task of reviving the hemisphere's poorest country will be most severely tested.

Since Aristide returned Saturday, Haiti almost overnight has become the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the Western hemisphere. An international plan to rebuild Haiti's economic and political infrastructure pledges $550 million in international aid in the next 12 months, with $195 million of that coming from the United States. The total foreign aid package for the next five years is estimated at about $1.2 billion.

The task, as described by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), starts with building a viable economy in a nation of 7 million whose long legacy of poverty was made worse during the past year by an international trade embargo. Now, Haiti's statistics paint a daunting picture: Half the children under 5 years old are malnourished; infant mortality is almost 11 percent, the highest in the hemisphere; only 25 percent of adults can read or write; unemployment in urban areas is 70 percent; social structure is virtually nonexistent. Almost 20 percent of the money allocated for the first year - $95 million - will go to basic feeding programs to try to keep people alive at a subsistence level.

But, also as described by AID, the Clinton administration declares it also has set out to promote a solution to the political and social problems that have afflicted Haiti over the years, preventing establishment of a durable democracy.

But how deeply AID and other international organizations will be involved in Haiti's internal workings in coming years is seen simply by looking at the section headings in the briefing book on where the money will be spent: debt arrears, job programs, democratic governance, civilian police, administration of justice, government operations, elections, economic recovery.

While the U.S. aid is available immediately, much of the rest of the money, which will come from international lending agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, will take several months to kick in.

Expectations, both in Haiti and abroad, are running high for quick, visible changes, but the expectations could prove too high in a nation emerging from three years of terror and devastation at the hands of brutal military rulers, coupled with economic devastation worsened by international trade sanctions.

"We have a very narrow window of opportunity here," the economist said. "Interest in Haiti won't last forever ... Either we get our act together now and use the next two years, or we monkey with politics and the whole thing will fold."

The people here and in surrounding hamlets try to eke a meager living off the arid, windswept land that seems to yield mostly cactus and dust. Many had part-time work at a flour mill an hour's walk away, but the mill closed because of the embargo. The clinic run by missionaries also closed because of the embargo, residents said, leaving the closest medical facility a two-hour hike away, in the town of Cabaret.

Beyond the immediate economic tasks, the town's social fabric has been torn in recent years by the repression, and no one seems capable of mending it. There are no functioning courts or law enforcement agency.