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Archive for Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Post-election peace is ‘a lull’ in Haiti’s desperation, violence

June 27, 2006

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— Just a short walk from the gang-ruled slum he calls home, on a street he was afraid to tread less than six months ago, Eligene Mondesir has found the first paying job of his 55-year lifetime.

It's smelly, exhausting work, shoveling garbage from the gutters in the withering tropical heat. But Mondesir, like the 1,750 others hired by a foreign relief group, is grateful for the $2 daily salary that allows him to feed more than a dozen family members.

In the tenuous peace that has prevailed since Haiti's Feb. 7 presidential election, faint signs of economic life have emerged, offering the first breath of hope in years that Haitians might finally escape decades of desperation.

But this luckless country has been at this crossroads before, and those who have seen their modest dreams of a normal life dashed by violence, misrule and corruption have learned to damp their expectations.

"I'll take it while it lasts," Mondesir says of the street-cleaning job on the volatile airport road - work that will disappear at the first sign of gang warfare.

With the election of agronomist Rene Preval, a former ally and protege of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the kidnappings and killings that had made this capital a war zone ceased as if someone turned off a light switch. Why, who and for how long remain questions no one can answer.

Preval has reached out to defeated rivals in putting together a new government and recovery plans. Some see the current calm as a breathing space accorded skeptical rivals. Others say it is just a pause for assessment of how to manage the new leader.

Gang violence ceased with Preval's election because the gunmen decided to give the new president "the gift of a truce" while they decide whether Preval will interfere with their criminal interests, speculates Mario Andresol, head of the Haitian National Police.

"I'm not too confident about security in this country," he said, pointing to an incident last month in which a Haitian judge freed an accused killer from prison in exchange for $60,000.

The Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping force that has more than 9,000 troops and police in Haiti has responsibility for helping reform the judicial system, mission spokesman David Wimhurst said. But the more the world body's civilian advisory team learns about crime and justice here, the more they despair of the near future.

"Those who don't want a return of law and order can stir things up so easily," Wimhurst said.

John Currelly, who heads the Pan American Development Foundation's Clean Streets project that Mondesir works for, says of the post-election peace, "It is absolutely only a lull."

The only way to entrench stability, says the Haiti veteran who was kidnapped for ransom a year ago, is to improve the standard of living and demonstrate to Haitians that there is a dignified means of surviving without resorting to the gun.

But others warn that the post-election peace is as orchestrated as the violence was.

"The roots of the problems haven't been tackled yet - that being the extreme misery of poverty in this country and the armed groups who still have their weapons," said Paul Denis, a leader of the Struggling People's Organization, a rival political movement to Preval, but one that has joined the president's governing coalition.

Analysts note that the key to sustainable economic improvement must come from the private sector. But most concede a longer period of calm will be needed to lure back investors chased away over the last 15 years of populism and political violence.

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