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Foreign Aid Suspension Plagues Haitian Economy - Without Political Results - 2001-09-16

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, has been largely cut off from foreign aid, as the international community attempts to pressure the country's leaders to bring a festering political crisis to an end. But some members of Haiti's government and ruling party complain the aid suspension is ill-conceived at best and an example of foreign arrogance at worst.

In his inaugural speech in February, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a plea for foreign aid. He said, "Haiti will need additional financial resources to promote development and allow for government restructuring in the best interests of the country."

But his words have fallen on deaf ears. Assistance from the United States, the European Union and international organizations first began to fall in early 1999, when then-President Rene Preval shut down Haiti's legislature. Many foreign donors further reduced aid last year after observers documented irregularities during parliamentary elections that were swept by the ruling Lavalas party. Overall, Haiti has lost more than half a billion dollars in assistance in recent years.

The charge d'affaires of the EU's diplomatic mission in Haiti, Albert Alexis, says the international community is sending a message that Haiti must change its ways. He explains, the EU has decided to take the following measures: first, to hold back the remainder of the 44.5 million euros (just over $40 million) currently allocated for Haiti; second, to suspend all direct budgetary aid that concerns structural adjustment and food programs.

Haiti's minister for foreign cooperation, Marc Bazin, notes that the overall aid suspension has had a dire effect. "It has been devastating for the country," he said. "We are the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty-percent of Haitians live on $.75 a day. The only hope we have is international assistance, and this has not been forthcoming."

Mr. Bazin admits Haiti has political problems that must be addressed. But he says the suspension of foreign assistance makes the Herculean task of reform even more difficult. "It is, to a large extent, applying the wrong remedies to the situation," he continued. "Below a [certain] level of poverty, you cannot be a democracy the way the United States is a democracy."

Other voices in Haiti are less diplomatic in their complaint. For one of President Aristide's lieutenants in Parliament, Lavalas Senator Gerald Gilles, the aid cut-off is the latest chapter in a long history of foreign domination.

Mr. Gilles says "The international community has always been arrogant when it comes to Haiti. He says it has been this way since the nation's birth in 1804, when Haitians seized independence from France to become the world's first black republic." Mr. Gilles says the colonial attitude of foreign powers remains, treating Haiti with an arrogance that has persisted for 200 years.

The EU mission's charge d'affaires in Haiti, Albert Alexis, responds by stating that foreign aid is a matter of cooperation, not domination. Mr. Alexis says the EU always works with a local [Haitian] coordinator who helps determine which project is financed. He says the work is done together. Mr. Alexis says Haitian politicians can talk about colonization, but he thinks that is going too far.

Foreign diplomats in Port-au-Prince acknowledge that the suspension of assistance, while designed to pressure Haiti's political class, mostly hurts the country's poor people. Thus, they say, reducing aid is a blunt tool for pressuring developing nations to stay on a democratic path, but one of the few tools they have at their disposal.