Haiti Poor Get Poorer in Embargo : Caribbean: Stiffer U.N. sanctions take effect. Some U.S. officials fear they will only add to the misery of the country's 7 million impoverished people.


Meet Bobouson Myrtil. He's 18 months old, about two feet tall, weighs perhaps 25 pounds, has enormous, entrancing dark eyes and, his mother says, "is going to die."

Bobouson doesn't know why he chokes on mucus and goes to sleep each night crying from hunger or that his life is likely to get worse, and neither does his mother, Emilia Myrtil, a 35-year-old with three other children so malnourished and ill that, she says in a flat voice, "they will all die."

But other people in this hamlet in the poorest area of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere do. It's the embargo.

The newest and bluntest stage of a series of embargoes dating back to November, 1991, went into effect Sunday, a theoretically near-total cutoff of all trade and commerce that is supposed to force the army dictators and their civilian allies to surrender and allow the return of the man brutally ousted from power 2 1/2 years ago, exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Given the failure of the past sanctions, most experts, including U.S. officials in Haiti and Washington, privately doubt that this newest tightening of the screws will accomplish anything other than increasing the already palpable misery of the overwhelming majority of Haiti's impoverished 7 million people.

"I don't know about a new embargo and I don't know where the embargo comes from," said Aramis Ramilien, a 32-year-old woman who runs an emergency feeding center near La Vie. "It just falls on us."

The northwest of Haiti is a place to understand the real effect of the past sanctions and to judge the impact of the current round.

Connected to the capital of Port-au-Prince by a road passable only by powerful four-wheel-drive vehicles that still take at least nine hours to make the spine-wrecking drive, the northwest is home to the poorest of the Haitian poor.

The area's only town, Bombardopolis, has not had electricity for nearly five years since a generator donated by the Germans failed. Rain that began last week interrupted a six-year drought, but, as with many things in Haiti, this blessing came wrapped in curses.

"We have rain, yes," said a relief worker with a private French development organization, "but the roads are flooded and the trucks (distributing food to feeding centers) can't get through, and the cooks can't find dry wood to cook with."

So on Saturday, many of the emergency food centers couldn't open. And since the centers close on Sundays anyway, most of the 320,000 northwestern residents who get their only daily meal from them won't eat for at least two days.

That's not the whole of it. An additional 300,000 people depend on so-called dry feeding--allotments of flour and uncooked beans distributed to people who live too far or are too sick to walk to the feeding centers. With the roads impassable lanes of muck, these people also went hungry.

Bombardopolis' poverty has been ever thus, and the rains come so infrequently that it is more desert than drought-ridden, but residents and international relief workers say the embargoes of the last 2 1/2 years have left these people clinging by their fingertips to the last rung of the ladder.

Now the embargo authorized by the U.N. Security Council at the urging of the Clinton Administration has all but guaranteed that the inhabitants of the northwest will fall to the bottom of the barrel.

The sanctions do have some exceptions, medicine and food among them. But officials of the two largest humanitarian agencies in Haiti, CARE and Catholic Relief Services, say their already severe distribution problems will worsen considerably.

Starting at the source, the rules of the embargo require hard-to-get licenses for humanitarian shipments by sea to Haiti and limit air connections to scheduled passenger lines, which, in turn, restrict cargo to two suitcases a person.

At least two U.S. charitable groups report having flights grounded by U.S. authorities, and other organizations describe difficulties in putting together large enough shipments to make it profitable for carriers to bring them to Haiti even if licenses are granted.

Once authorized goods arrive, the problems only multiply, and not just those caused by rains. There are no spare parts for trucks or for the unloading machinery at the ports.

Edinel Jean-Baptiste, a nurse at Bombardopolis' solitary clinic, said the only way she can get medicine to treat patients is to beg money from the cash-starved residents and try to find her way to Port-au-Prince, 180 miles away.

"But there is hardly any transport," she said as she sat in her sparsely furnished and thatch-roofed house, "and it costs 30 (U.S.) dollars" round trip. (She makes less than half that in a month--if she gets paid.)

Jean-Baptiste said the lack of transport and money has reduced her patients to about 15 a day, almost all of them suffering from hunger or malnutrition.

"I get about four or five new cases of malnutrition every day," she said. "Last week there were four children with severe malnutrition, two with Grade Three and two with Grade Two." Grade Three malnutrition puts the children in danger of death, she said.

As discouraging as the circumstances are for the northwest, the prospects are equally dim for achieving the stated goal of the embargo--the return of Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president.

For not only is the military refusing to give in, the embargo itself has made the army and its civilian cronies rich through their control of the rampant smuggling that has defeated the sanctions so far.

Most of the smuggled goods, including millions of gallons of gasoline, come from the neighboring Dominican Republic. U.S. officials say the key to a successful embargo is the closing of that border.

Yet those same officials say there is little they can do to force the Dominican government to act, and with profits on both sides of the border so high and the Santo Domingo government sympathetic to the Haitian military, there appears to be no chance of voluntary compliance.

Added to this is the sour irony of a U.S. policy that exempts the most powerful of Haitian civilians supporting the coup from travel restrictions and asset-freezing as called for by the Security Council on grounds that "they may be of use to us" in the future, as one U.S. official put it.

That the sanctions remain porous was evident by the four large tanker trucks seen Saturday heading to the border town of Ouanamint to pick up gasoline and from reports from the southern port city of Jacmel, where six freighters had unloaded thousands of gallons of gasoline bought in the Dominican Republic.

One ship loaded with gasoline defied repeated radio demands from a U.S. Navy ship that it stop or face being fired on. The ship landed and the U.S. vessel held its fire, according to witnesses who also monitored the radio exchange.

So while guests of the quaint Jacmelienne Hotel sipped their cocktails and watched thousands of gallons of embargo-breaking gasoline unloaded in full view of blustering U.S. naval officers, little Bobouson Myrtil and hundreds of thousands of equally deprived Haitians either ate a gruel of mixed wheat-soy flour thickened by bean paste or didn't eat at all.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World