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Some Haitians Losing Faith in Democracy - 2001-12-19

Monday, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide survived an apparent coup attempt, as security forces repelled gunmen who stormed the presidential palace. Observers say the assault was the latest sign that Haiti's fledgling democracy is in trouble. Amid chronic political upheaval and economic stagnation, some Haitians openly question whether democracy can deliver the gains they have been promised for years.

On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, 76 year old great-grandmother Simone Laporte sits on the steps of her one-room home. Ms. Laporte says Haitians are suffering in misery. She says she has never seen things as bad as they are today: children not going to school, having nothing to eat. Ms. Laporte says the people do not know what to do.

Nearby, Jacques Laguerre says he gave up hope long ago that Haiti's government would make things better for himself and his neighbors. Mr. Laguerre says he doesn't think the politicians are doing anything for the people. He says the politicians are working for their wallets and their mistresses, not for the good of the country.

Street vendor Cadet Windson, takes an even more pessimistic view of Haiti's plight. Mr. Windson says he believes nothing will change regardless of which government is in power. He says he always tells his friends that Haiti needs a huge flood to wash everything away so that a new country can be built from scratch.

The international community first began withholding aid to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, in 1999 -- when then-President Rene Preval shut down the country's parliament. Foreign aid was further restricted last year when international observers documented irregularities in legislative elections that were swept by Haiti's ruling Lavalas Party. Overall, the country has lost more than half-a-billion dollars in assistance. Haiti's economy has barely registered any economic growth in recent years, while hunger, violence and certain diseases have grown more prevalent.

In parliament, Lavalas Senator Gerald Gilles acknowledges things could be better. But he insists Haitians have yet to reach a breaking point. Senator Gilles says the Haitian people have been frustrated, due to persistent economic problems and poverty. But he says the Haitian people are intelligent and willing to make sacrifices for a better future.

For many Haitians, however, patience is in short supply. Street vendor Cadet Windson says he is tired of weak, democratically-elected governments that seem more disposed to debate than action. He says Haiti needs a strong leader, even if that means a return to dictatorial rule. Mr. Windson says he thinks the best form of government is one like the former (Francois) Duvalier regime, adding that it is the only effective way to rule Haiti.

Sentiments like those expressed by Cadet Windson are a source of concern for the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Even before Monday's attack on the presidential palace, Mr. Aristide's Minister for Planning, Marc Bazin, admitted to hearing rumors of possible coups almost everyday. He says the discontent is not surprising. "People are losing faith in democracy," he says. "In any developing country with this kind of poverty and the lack of hope you have the ingredients for an explosion."

Over the past year, protests have erupted featuring demonstrators calling for a return of Haiti's disbanded army. It was the army that overthrew President Aristide's first administration in 1991 and ruled with an iron grip for three years.