An abandoned U. S. adventure

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. MARC, Haiti -- Rodrigue Mortel rose from his peasant beginnings to get an education, thanks largely to the determination of his mother, and went on to a distinguished medical career in the United States.

He didn't turn his back on his native land. Last month, a school he built for the poor of St. Marc, the city where he was born, opened with 63 kindergartners.

Gerard Dormevil grew up in a mountainside village 2 1/2 hours north of St. Marc, one of eight children of a peasant farmer. Unlike many of his countrymen, he got an education, was ordained a priest and recently managed to bring an irrigation project to his native village.

The work of these men, substantial as it is, represents what Mortel calls "a drop in the bucket" for this desperately poor country, the biggest basket case of the Western Hemisphere.

Drops in the bucket like these are all that's left of a forgotten dream to rebuild Haiti with billions of dollars from the United States and the international community.

Seven years after a U.S.-led armed force restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after his ouster in a 1991 military coup, Haiti is sinking deeper into a political and economic morass.

Aristide left office in 1995 when his term expired. Now, he's president again, having won a disputed election last year. The government is paralyzed over that balloting and a contentious election of legislators. The latest Organization of American States effort to broker an agreement between Aristide's Lavalas Family Party and a 15-party opposition coalition collapsed last month.

Haiti can't balance the budget, inflation is rising, foreign aid is off, the government is paying 30 percent interest on bonds and the International Monetary Fund is demanding that Haiti shape up.

Corruption is endemic.

Lawrence Pezzullo lays the blame for political paralysis squarely on Aristide -- and on the failure of the Clinton administration to force Aristide to agree to a government of reconciliation before restoring him to power in 1994.

"The military was ready to change," says Pezzullo, a Baltimorean who was the Clinton administration's special adviser on Haiti from March 1993 to April 1994. "The private sector, which hated Aristide, was willing to play a reasonable role. The opposition parties were ready to play a reasonable role. The world community was ready to go in with massive help."

Administration officials talked of a billion dollars over five years.

Aristide resisted compromise and lobbied Congress, particularly the Black Caucus, for support.

"The Clinton administration, which tried to do the right thing, just didn't have the stomach to deal with this," says Pezzullo. So, it sent 20,000 soldiers to Haiti to unseat the coup and restore Aristide without agreement of all parties on a government.

"Haiti is in a terrible mess," Pezzullo says. "Now they've got a dictatorship which has a patina of democracy. ... It's a fraud, and there's no power on Earth that's going to do anything about it. We're not going to do anything about it."

The failure is a sobering lesson for the Bush administration as it faces a difficult task in Afghanistan, seeking replacement of the Taliban with a broad-based government in a land that is more a collection of tribal fiefdoms than a nation.

"The centerpiece of any country, whether Afghanistan or any country in trouble, is to try to build a political base," Pezzullo says. "You've got to have reconciliation internally. Otherwise, especially in cases like Haiti, where you've had one despot after another controlling executive power and dominating, there's a repetition of the past.

"What you have now in Aristide is just that. ... Give him power and he abuses it. He dominates everything. ... Forget the poor. Forget anything else. Forget anything resembling internal growth."

Marc Bazin, a prime minister during the military dictatorship and now minister of planning in the Aristide government, fears the downward spiral will lead to a boat exodus toward Florida like one that preceded the U.S. intervention in 1994.

There is talk of a coup as Aristide's support weakens. A general strike by the political opposition, accompanied by some violence, virtually shut down the nation's second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, last week while small demonstrations have occurred elsewhere.

All this in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where life expectancy is 47 1/2 for men and 51 for women; where half the people older than 15 are illiterate, and 80 percent of them live in abject poverty; where the unemployment rate is 70 percent.

Safe water is a luxury enjoyed by less than half the population. Only a quarter of the people have access to adequate sanitation.

Health care is abysmal. In Gonaives, two hours north of St. Marc, Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity run a medical clinic. On a hot August day, 750 people were lined up for treatment when it opened.

The country is falling apart. Wide roads, once smoothly paved, are deeply rutted and potholed, offering slow, bone-jarring rides. Municipal water and electric services, where they exist, are sporadic and the water is not safe to drink.

A million Haitians fled the country between 1981 and 1996. The money sent home by this diaspora totaled $373.5 million last year, more than the country earned from exports, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

This is a land of stark contrasts. Take western Haiti, the coastal area around Gonaives.

Drive south of Gonaives, into the Artibonite Valley, considered the nation's most fertile area, and rice paddies stretch from the river to the mountains. Go north out of Gonaives toward Bassin Mangnan, where Dormevil, 44, built the irrigation project and there's a barren moonscape.

Driving this bleak landscape, Dormevil looks off into the distance to a new, partially completed house -- constructed, like all buildings here, of block and concrete.

"They should worry about putting trees instead of houses," he huffs. "There were many trees 30 years ago."

Over recent decades, Haiti has been stripped of most of its trees for fuel. Fruit trees are spared because they produce food.

As the road rises along the mountainside, the scrub and cactus give way to fruit trees and fields of crops. Thatched roof cottages that could have been plucked from an Irish postcard dot the landscape.

High above the village stands a huge concrete cube -- a 120,000-gallon water tank. Just down the hill is a pump house that lifts water from artesian wells to the tank. A second tank that holds 24,000 gallons is in the pump house.

Concrete ditches will carry the water to the fields.

"We are going to do the green revolution for the people," says Dormevil.

The $100,000 project was financed by Hands Together, a 14-year-old Massachusetts organization dedicated to helping the poor in Haiti.

In St. Marc, Mortel's passion is the new school that honors his parents. He raised nearly $600,000 for its construction -- most of it from Food for the Poor, a Florida-based charity that pours millions of dollars into Latin America and the Caribbean.

Mortel's mother, Lamercie, never had the education that was her dream. She made sure her son did, and he excelled. Mortel, 67, earned a medical degree in Port-au-Prince, served a couple years as a country doctor, and then went to Canada and the United States for further training.

After a career as an oncologist in obstetrics and gynecology, he is preparing to retire at year's end as associate dean of the Penn State University College of Medicine and director of the University Cancer Center. He is increasing his focus on Haiti, heading the Archdiocese of Baltimore's Haiti project begun by Cardinal William H. Keeler, getting his school off the ground and raising a $2 million endowment to finance its operation, and ministering to Haitians and Marylanders as a newly ordained deacon of the Catholic church.

Mortel built the school -- Les Bons Samaritains -- within easy walking distance of poor St. Marc neighborhoods and sent recruiters in search of the opening class of kindergartners.

As the inaugural class moves up the ladder each year, the school will eventually provide a complete primary education. It also will offer adult literacy classes and classes in cooking and sewing for woman.

Two hours away is Holy Family School. It is in a Gonaives neighborhood called Trou-Sable -- which translates to Hole-in-the-Sand -- an overcrowded warren of narrow alley streets pocked with tin-roof shacks and a few more-substantial houses, and crowded with the poor.

Sister Vincenzina, an Italian nun, is in charge of the school, which has 700 pupils. She arrived in Haiti three years ago after 17 years as a missionary in Burundi, Zaire, Rwanda and Congo.

Poverty was bad in Africa, she says. "Here," she adds, "it is even more poor."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°