The children here are not starving, not yet. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But someday soon.
Their bellies will start to swell. Their hair will turn orange. Their skin will turn chalky gray. These are symptoms of malnutrition and starvation.
“People are still finding something to eat--but very little,” said a Catholic priest, one of five who serve a parish so large they can reach some villages to say Mass only once a year. “If things don’t change very soon . . . .” His voice trailed into silence.
An international economic boycott and a chaotic political conflict are beggaring Haiti, a country that in the best of times registers worst in almost all categories used to measure standards of living in the Western Hemisphere.
Overall, the political crisis here may be the most damaging. But the immediate concern is the boycott, a devastating policy imposed by the United Nations in mid-October and largely enforced by the United States since.
The theory is to punish the country’s brutal military regime for reneging on an agreement to restore exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, driven from office in September, 1991, only nine months after he won Haiti’s first truly free election.
The embargo is aimed largely at commercial and financial transactions and, most importantly, petroleum--the gasoline and diesel fuels that even in remotest Haiti are essential to life.
This is the third round of sanctions to strike Haiti’s 6.5 million people in two years. The first, imposed by the Organization of American States, brought widespread starvation that cost 4,000 lives, according to the OAS. It was allowed to lapse when it was largely ignored.
A second boycott, this one imposed by the United Nations, took effect last June, again spreading misery; because this embargo was observed, however, it forced the military into negotiations to restore Aristide.
That effort ultimately failed. And that led the U.N. Security Council to order in October an end to petroleum shipments here. So far, this embargo has done little, even by the accounts of U.S. and U.N. officials here, except make already desperate lives more miserable.
In all three boycotts, the people who were supposed to be harmed, the rich and their military allies, survived; some even prospered as they traded in black-market fuel.
But in the rural areas--where any restriction on the fragile economy, particularly the transportation sector, brings calamity--the suffering has been widespread.
In the northwest, a perpetually famine-stricken area, health workers and humanitarian organizations already report serious malnutrition. Officials at CARE, the American humanitarian organization that runs feeding centers in the area, say they are on the verge of shutting down because they are running short of fuel for trucks.
“People are already dying,” one CARE worker said. “We know that, but because people can’t get from their villages to the centers and we can’t spare what little gas we have to get to them, we don’t know the full extent.”
Similar assessments come from Catholic Relief Services, which feeds almost 170,000 people in the southern sections. “We need 16,000 gallons (of fuel) now,” said Doug Green, the agency’s director. “We have plenty of food. The problem is getting it from the port.
“The situation is always so bad it is hard to imagine it getting worse,” he said. “But it obviously can and it is. People are getting desperate.”
The hardship here is almost impossible to escape. The cost of a bus ride, if a bus can be found, has quadrupled. It now costs 10 Haitian dollars for a one-way trip from Verrettes to St. Marc, about 18 miles away. But the highest-paid worker in the area earns only about seven Haitian dollars a day.
In central Haiti, the richest agricultural section of the country, relief workers and farmers express resignation, confusion and sometimes anger. “Hey, white man!” shouted one idle farmer to two reporters drinking beer. “Life is sweet if you can afford a beer.”
The rice fields are filling with weeds and algae. In the hour it took to drive from the coastal highway here, a road lined by paddies, only one woman was seen harvesting. Where the roads once were so filled with drying rice husks it was almost impossible to drive down them, they now stand empty, except for pedestrians and goats.
The sides of the roads actually seem busy with foot traffic. Men plod slowly, stopping to stare at passing vehicles. Women walk with more purpose, balancing baskets on their heads, going to sell something or buy something.
“At least they hope so,” the priest in Verrettes said. “But mostly they are just waiting.”
He spoke from the dusty office of his church, a massive structure that dwarfs the tiny thatched-roofed buildings of the town. “They can’t work because there is no way to transport the rice. They can’t get to markets because there is no transport, and if there is, the price is beyond them. They can’t sell anything because no one can get here to buy. So they just wait, or they walk looking for something to do. This has to change.”
So it seems. This is the Artibonite Valley, one of the three plains in Haiti. Once the domain of U.S.-owned United Fruit Co., it produces the country’s most crucial food crop, rice.
It doesn’t produce much. Only a third of the rice consumed in this country is grown here, with the rest bought from the United States. But this is Haiti’s largest agricultural business, and it supports more than 1 million people in an area of about 2,000 square miles.
“The people here are in real trouble,” said a manager of a foreign-owned rice processing company that is taking over some production in the valley. “They already are eating their seeds, which means real problems for next season’s crops. In another month, you’ll see starvation.
“Things have to change.”
With a third boycott in place, this notion is ubiquitous. When earlier sanctions were considered, many people supported them, showing a willingness to sacrifice in the belief that Aristide would return.
Now, with the collapse of the diplomatic effort to bring him back, almost all those interviewed said there is no purpose to the embargo.
“Everyone still wants (Aristide) back,” said Emanuel Pierre Estil, 27, a Verrettes resident. “But they want the embargo lifted this time. It only punishes the people, and Aristide is still in the United States.”
Estil said he left Port-au-Prince to come back to Verrettes to live with his family and to tend his land here.
“Out here, you survive if you have land,” he said. “If you have no land, you are in the hands of God.”