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Aristide fills a vacuum in Haiti; Foundation: The former president's organization delivers where a foundering government can't and lays the groundwork for another run for office.


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The government is broke. Parliament is paralyzed. The president is politically crippled. And the country has been without an official prime minister for more than 18 months.

So where is an ordinary Haitian to turn when the hamstrung bureaucracy can't help?

Try knocking on Jean-Bertrand Aristide's door. That's where thousands of poor Haitians are finding help.

The former priest and president -- who likely will run again next year -- operates an all-purpose foundation that in effect substitutes for at least four key ministries of government.

Need a loan? Apply at the Aristide credit office. Groceries? Stop by the Aristide store for food at a discount. A ride? Let the Aristide transportation service pick you up. A pig for your farm? Aristide's folks can help you get one.

The foundation is able to help only a handful of Haiti's millions of poor -- but that's more than the government is able to do.

"We went to the government, and they neglected us," says Wilfred Mervil, a community activist who tried unsuccessfully for months to get the agriculture ministry to provide irrigation for dry farmland. "We went to Aristide, and he welcomed us. He gave us the pumps for the water, and now the crops are growing."

In the last 2 1/2 years, Aristide's foundation, run out of a security-tight warehouse not far from his upper-class house, has provided more than 12,000 Haitians with crucial assistance that the government has been unable -- or unwilling -- to provide.

While foundation leaders say the programs are altruistic, they admit there are political pluses. Not only does Aristide keep his finger on the pulse of the masses who swept him to victory in 1990, he is building a grateful and loyal voter base for his next run at the presidency.

"Aristide is a political leader, and part of the job is to keep the masses happy," says Toussaint Hilaire, a social worker who leads the foundation. "Since the government is not doing its job, someone has to step in and do it. Who better than the man who knows the masses?"

Aristide's foundation is funded by local and international donors, from deposits in its credit agency and from membership fees. Aristide does not draw a paycheck from the foundation, but lives well on a presidential pension.

Since his term expired in 1996, Aristide has kept a low profile even as his hand-picked successor, agronomist Rene Preval, finds his government in chaos. Aristide made no public statement as the Haitian political crisis escalated last week when Preval appointed a prime minister without legislative approval and refused to extend Parliament's term. With no sitting ruling body, the government is unable to function.

Foreign observers are watching for signs that Aristide may attempt to come to the government's rescue either as a mediator or in a temporary leadership position.

Aristide fled Haiti in 1991 after being ousted by a military coup but was ushered back to power by a U.S-led intervention in 1994.

"Clearly, Aristide will continue to play a key role in Haitian affairs," says a senior U.S. official. "He clearly still has enormous popularity among the poor electorate."

Faced with an unresponsive government, many poor Haitians look to Aristide. The government has no welfare system. Most assistance programs are administered by aid agencies backed with foreign donations.

Aristide's foundation is the closest thing Haiti has to a public-service agency. For about $3, a Haitian can buy a foundation membership badge, which allows access to the foundation store, credit agency and assorted programs ranging from conflict resolution to civics lessons.

Poor Haitians have great difficulties obtaining loans from government-run banks because they have little in savings or possessions to serve as collateral. Aristide's foundation, which began operating in 1996, has roughly $600,000 in outstanding loans.

The foundation has more than 12,000 members and continues to expand. Still, "the foundation will never have enough money to satisfy the needs of the population," Hilaire says.

A group of two dozen women from suburban Port-au-Prince has traveled more than three hours in crowded taxis to the foundation store to buy food that they will sell in their neighborhoods. The small profits will help feed their families.

One of the women, Dieula Joseph, spends about $8 to buy a meager bag of groceries for her family, about $2 less than she would have paid on the street. The mother of seven children says she wonders why the private nonprofit group does more for poor folk than her elected leaders.

"The government should be doing this," she says of the foundation's work. "But I do not know of government. Where can I find government?"

A few miles away, peasants who collectively farm several acres of land abandoned by a sugar cane consortium are now seeing beans, okra and plantains sprout out of land that was bone-dry.

Led by a local teacher, the peasants went to the government for help with irrigation. They even demonstrated outside the ministry. "But it produced nothing," says Mervil, the teacher turned community activist.

Through the local rumor mill, Mervil heard that Aristide's foundation was providing loans. Mervil and some farmers went to see Aristide, who met with them and paved the way for $1,000 in loans -- at an interest rate of 1 percent per month -- for pumps to irrigate farmland during the dry season.

As he stands with several peasants on the farmland, Mervil says that with all the fiscal and political troubles in Haiti, it is nice to see some relief.

"People had nothing," he says, recalling a few years ago, after the coup d'etat that forced Aristide from the country. It was a time when he and many of his neighbors had just come out of hiding.

"They were hungry and when you looked at their faces, they were sad," he says. "Now you look at people's faces and they are happy. You see hope there."

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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