The deforested hills could not absorb the torrential rains of early June, and the runoff flooded the lowlands of Haiti's southern coast. At Les Cayes, more than two dozen people drowned and hundreds lost their homes.
It was the town's worst natural disaster in years, but it did not stop thousands of people from joining a nationwide wave of anti-government protests.
"The next day after the water went down, they were out on the streets," an American aid worker said.
Demonstrators blocked the streets with burning tires and refuse. Dozens of other barricades on the highway from Port-au-Prince, 120 miles away, kept flood-relief supplies from coming in.
Crowd Moved In
On Saturday, June 7, two army helicopters brought in food and medicine. When one of the copters landed on a grassy square in the slum neighborhood of La Savanne, it was quickly surrounded by hundreds of people. And as the other helicopter circled overhead, the crowd made an unexpected, angry demand.
"We gave them 15 minutes to leave," said Ella Herard, a gray-haired woman of 43 in a tattered white dress.
The helicopters departed without delivering the supplies.
The people of La Savanne rejected the aid to emphasize that they need much more than food, Herard said, adding: "The need is for jobs. No, we don't have food. But if I keep on taking food, I will never be able to work on my own."
A small crowd gathered one afternoon last week as Herard talked with reporters at the edge of the square, where three goats grazed under the searing sun. Everyone seemed to agree with Herard.
Food Only a Palliative
Paulette Bastien, a young woman in a red dress, said, "We don't want food because they always say that when the Haitian's stomach is full, he doesn't want anything else."
Louis Bertrand, a tall youth, added, "After 29 years of suffering, food will not satisfy us."
The 29 years were those of the Duvalier era, a period of deepening poverty under the late Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. Young Duvalier fled to exile in France in February after a series of popular protests against his government.
Bertrand said that four months after a military-led provisional government took over from Duvalier, it has made little headway in satisfying popular demands for jobs and for removing Duvalier officials from the government.
"We can't find jobs, and they only want to give us food," he said. "It used to be Jean-Claude Duvalier's custom, when we demanded something, to send us food. So they are doing the same thing that Duvalier used to do. We still are not free."
Bertrand warned that Haitians will protest again and again until their demands are satisfied.
Ferment Has Effect
Like Bertrand, many other Haitians have acquired the heady notion that crowds in the street can sway and even topple governments. Since Duvalier's fall, the provisional government has faced several waves of protest demonstrations.
It has been a period of uncertainty, disruption and occasional bloodshed--to some extent an extension of the turbulence during Duvalier's last months in power.
Since he was ousted, economic activity has declined. Gen. Henri Namphy, president of the provisional government, said recently that 12,000 jobs have been lost. And John Klink, director of Catholic Relief Services in Haiti, sees increased unemployment.
"It's going to grow more and more and more," Klink said. "I don't see any solution to it."
Some Haitians say that a vicious cycle has been set in motion: Unrest cripples the economy, making poverty worse, and the poverty fuels the unrest.
The unrest is fanned by unbridled political activity and unfettered radio reporting, both innovations of the new regime. In the Haiti of 1986, cautious whispers of discontent have become bold shouts.
Pressure Groups Blamed
"It is the pressure groups that are trying to paralyze national life," Gregoire Eugene, a Christian Democratic politician, said. "The demands come from small groups, but the press and the radio say they come from the whole population."
An American diplomat, who asked not to be identified by name, commented: "These people are hungry and they are getting fed up, and it doesn't take much to goad them into action. . . . What is interesting is that the bloodshed hasn't been worse."
Street demonstrations have been blamed on both leftist and rightist agitators. Amid the latest wave of protests this month, Namphy declared that "under the incitement of groups trained in the game of destabilization, the country finds itself at the edge of anarchy."
As the protests subsided, Namphy announced an electoral timetable, with presidential elections scheduled for November, 1987. But he warned that circumstances have "reached such a disastrous point that the democratic future of our country is jeopardized."
William Schonfeld, a U.S. political scientist who was in Haiti last week for a series of conferences and lectures on democracy, said Haiti's future is uncertain at best.
Schonfeld, dean of social sciences at the University of California, Irvine, said that with 80% of the population illiterate, coupled with a rigid class system and an undemocratic tradition, the transition to greater freedom is sure to be chaotic.
"The government is offering a sort of abstract schedule for the democratic process, and the people don't understand the democratic process," he said. "They have lived in only one kind of political system, and that is the exploiter and the exploited."
Schonfeld forecast "a slow process of degeneration" that may or may not interrupt the electoral schedule.
"The frustration of the people will build up," he said. "You'll have more and more incidents of different types--demonstrations, roadblocks, general strikes. Somewhere down the line. you'll have violence."
Roger Savain, a Haitian businessman who has lived in the United States, is less pessimistic. Savain, 63, expects Namphy to be flexible enough to avoid a confrontation.
"As long as he keeps dialoguing with them and trying to understand what they say, I don't think there will be any great problem," Savain said.
"This is complete improvisation. The people are learning, the political leaders are learning, the government is learning, the general is learning. As long as they learn by trying to find grounds for accommodation, things will be OK."