By Andrew Buncombe in Port-au-Prince
Sheltering from the sun beneath a tattered piece of plastic in the crowded streets of Salamoun market, Jacqueline Charles shrugged when asked whether life had improved under the government of the man she voted for.
“We are thinking life will be better. Maybe one day,” said the 60-year-old, who was selling rice. “[So far] there has been no real change. Only God knows. I voted for change but things cannot change right away.”
Anyone looking for signs of improvement in Haiti has a frustrating and arduous task and this teeming market in the centre of the capital, Port-au-Prince, where some of the city’s most beleaguered residents try to scrape out a living, may not be best place to start. But six months after Ren� Pr�val was sworn in as president of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere there are small, if flickering, signs that some sort of progress is being made.
Perhaps most noticeable is an improvement in the security situation, a factor that has long disrupted life in the capital city and which had threatened both the poor, which make up the overwhelming majority of the population, and the middle-class.
Streets that were once occupied by UN soldiers in armoured vehicle are no less chaotic but the troops are being deployed less visibly. And, vitally, the spate of kidnappings by armed gangs – a phenomenon that late last year had soared to extraordinary levels – appears to be in decline.
Figures provided to The Independent by the UN Mission in Haiti (Minustah) suggest that kidnappings have fallen every month since August when there were 78, to 45 in September, 27 in October and 12 to date in November.
“The security situation in the impoverished areas of the city is somewhat improved. In Cite Soleil the national police have established a presence for the first time in three years,” said spokesman David Wimhurst. “This does not mean the situation is resolved, but it is better than it was.”
He said that Minustah troops were still routinely deployed in some areas of the city which have traditionally seen most violence from armed gangs, but he added: “There are fewer shootings from the gangs towards Minustah, but they continue nonetheless, and the gangs are still present, even if less able to undertaken criminal activities as a result of our military operations.”
Small but important steps have also been made from an economic perspective. Mr Pr�val’s administration has passed a budget, is cautiously collecting taxes and has been promised around $750m in international aid. Inflation is estimated to have fallen to around nine per cent from sixteen per cent and the IMF expects the economy to grow by 2.5 per cent.
“There is some kind of window of opportunity and the sense of stability that the country has some future,” Edmond Mulet, the UN’s special envoy to Haiti recently told the Associated Press. “It’s still a fragile situation. I wouldn’t say we’ve turned a corner yet, but I think in the next months we’ll be able to assume that, hopefully.”
Another area in which Mr Pr�val’s government has drawn praise is its apparent readiness to reinstall the judicial and investigate process – something that had been ignored under the previous, interim government headed by Gerard Latortue. Judge Claudy Gassant, a government investigator who fled in fear to the US several years ago during his inquiry into the killing of a journalist, has been brought back as a director of prosecutions. The country’s criminal courts have in recent months heard a flurry of cases.
“There is a sense that there is a stronger political will to pursue certain sensitive cases and to start to combat impunity,” said Helen Spraos, country director of the British charity Christian Aid. “This is not to say that there are not still very serious problems with the legal system here, but it least it’s going in the right direction.”
Yet the pressing challenge for Mr Pr�val is to somehow seize this opportunity to bring about change in the lives of those people who voted him earlier this year – the country’s huge numbers of desperately poor and vulnerable people. Supporters, in essence, like the women in the market place. Clearly the very large number of people at the bottom of the pile in Haiti do not believe their lives have so far been improved.
“Things have not changed. We have not seen a change,” said another of the market traders at Salamoun, Jocelyn LaCrette. Asked what would make life better for her and her colleagues, she replied: “Food and security.”
It is difficult to overestimate the impoverishment and hardship faced by Haiti’s poor. More than three-quarters of the population survives below the official UN poverty line of two dollars a day while more than 50 per cent exist on just one dollar a day and are officially considered to be in “abject poverty”. Not only is Haiti the poorest country in the western hemisphere but it is one of the poorest outside of sub-Saharan Africa.
In the worst of the city’s slums, such as the notorious waterside shanty known as Cite�Soleil, the squalor and misery that is mainstay of every day existence is difficult to describe. Less than half the nation’s population has access to clean water and Haiti is ranked with Somalia and Afghanistan as having the worst worldwide daily calorific deficit per head of the population.
“Life is just too hard for the Haitian people,” said Alex Toyo, a taxi driver who lives near the historic but crumbling Olofsson Hotel in the city centre. “There has been some improvement in the security but not in the economy. People are frustrated.”
Alongside this crushing poverty there is a very small middle class and a small, often lighter-skinned elite that live in the small enclave of Petionville, a district of Port-au-Prince set high on the mountainside, overlooking the ocean and overlooking the poverty. The country’s Gini coefficient – a statistical tool that measures economic inequality – stands at 0.65, worse even than Brazil which is considered one of the world’s most unequal nations.
Such a situation does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, Haiti has long suffered from a series of corrupt dictators, economic isolation and political interference. The country’s previous elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in February 2004 following an uprising supported by elements in Washington.
In the two years of rule by the interim government imposed by the US, French and Canadian governments, members of Mr Aristide’s Lavalas party suffered widespread political repression, violence and imprisonment. One survey carried out by researchers at Wayne State University in Michigan estimated that 8,000 people may have been killed and as many as 30,000 raped during this period.
Mr Aristide had previously been ousted in a CIA-backed coup in 1991 but he was reinstalled with the help of US Marines three years later as a result of intervention by President Bill Clinton. But Mr Aristide’s return to office came with a price: the international community insisted that if he wanted to receive aid to help his country he must also adopt a serious of “liberal” economic measures to ensure the competitiveness of the country’s labour pool. He was told to put aside his plans to impose price controls on some foods and to increase the minimum wage.
The result of this long-term policy insisted by the international community has brought few obvious benefits to the Haitian people. Indeed, the virtual absence of tariffs on imports has led to devastation within the country’s agricultural sector – traditionally its largest area of export and its biggest income earner. Today in Port-au-Prince one is as likely to be eating rice, milk, and even sugar imported from the US – where these industries are heavily subsidised – than to be eating locally produced foods.
Whether Mr Aristide will ever return from exile in South Africa remains unclear. During his election campaign Mr Pr�val indicated there was nothing to prevent his return. He has also overseen the release from jail of a number of high profile colleagues of Mr Aristide, including former prime minister Yvonne Neptune.
Among the other high profile prisoners released earlier this year was the folk singer and Aristide ally Anne Auguste, also known as So-Anne or “Sister Anne”. She had been imprisoned without formal charge for two-and-a-half years having been initially seized by US Marines who claimed she was a threat to them. Having been released after spending 826 days in jail, So-Anne is now helping her husband, Wilfred Lavaud, in his bid to become the mayor of the city’s Delmas district.
In an interview at her home she spoke of the appalling conditions inside the women’s prison located in Petionville and also of the need for the international community to help Mr Pr�val’s government succeed. It had been more than 200 year since the country’s rose up and achieved independence, she said, and still it was fighting for its freedom.
“If Pr�val is failing, everyone is failing” she said. “Haiti is a country that has struggled since 1804. We are in a hole now, struggling. We are still fighting. 2006 and we are the same. It’s very bad.”