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In Haiti, Lost Hopes and Lost Children : Caribbean: Some parents abandon their own as sanctions bite.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She sat quietly on the broken plastic hospital chair in the fading twilight, her curly hair tied by a checked blue-and-white ribbon that matched her faded dress. There were no tears; only the wide eyes fixed on a visitor showed her fear.

The little girl, perhaps 3 years old, said her name was Olivia. She seemed hungry and had a gasping respiratory problem. Olivia shyly said she was waiting for her mother to come back.

Olivia didn’t know it, but her mother wasn’t going to return. The tiny child had been abandoned.

Her mother had brought her to Haiti’s National Hospital early one recent day, according to a nurse. Sometime in the hours that followed, the parent left and never returned, unable or unwilling to care for the little girl.

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Sadly, Olivia’s case is not unique. Workers at the National Hospital say two or three children are abandoned each day at their facility alone. Other hospitals report similar experiences--another result of the devastating international sanctions that are driving Haiti into increasing misery and despair in the name of political-diplomatic maneuvers that many of their architects acknowledge are not working.

Abandoned children were a nearly unknown phenomenon in Haiti before an economic embargo was put in place to try to reverse the 1991 military coup that overthrew the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president.

The sanctions, intensified last May after the ruling military refused the latest of a series of international demands that it step down, have destroyed almost all industry and businesses serving the poor and the middle class.

Diplomatic economists say almost 300,000 jobs have been lost in the three years of sanctions. This has been an excruciating development in a country where most of the 7 million people had never worked for a regular salary.

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But in the last weeks, the pain became agony when Haiti was overwhelmed by inflation that is threatening the most basic survival of the people. According to diplomats and Haitian economic experts, inflation is now running about 900% annually and worsening daily, if not hourly. It is likely to close schools and even stop food distribution.

And while it is impoverishing--even killing--people and “finally touching the lives of the elite,” according to one diplomat, there is no sign that the army and its puppet civilian government will give in.

“This (inflation) is no silver bullet,” a U.S. diplomat said. “We’re still trying to influence a small hard core” of those defying the international community. “But it hasn’t worked.”

What inflation and the rest of the economic devastation are doing is creating the horror of parents deserting their children.

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“People were always poor here, but children were taken care of by their parents and the rest of the family,” said Dr. Franz Large, an eye specialist who cares for the impoverished here. “Now there is no work, what little money they have is becoming worthless, and even rice and beans are beyond most people. They can’t feed their children.”

Three years ago, five Haitian gourds, as the local currency is called, bought enough rice to feed a large family for a day. Now, it takes close to 100 gourds. The minimum wage is about 15 gourds a day, although unemployment is estimated at close to 85% and even 15 gourds is a dream figure.

Avocados, mangoes and bananas are still relatively plentiful in street markets. But most people don’t have money to buy even basic produce and have nothing to barter. The fruit is often left rotting in the gutters overnight.

The most immediate victims are children, Large said, noting: “They are almost always hungry, sometimes desperately so, and their parents leave them here because they can’t feed them, or they are homeless. They hope we will take care of the children.

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“The problem is, the hospital isn’t much better off,” he said. “There is no food here, we can’t replace mattresses, and we ran out of bedsheets months ago. We (the staff) have to spend our own money to feed the patients, and our money is becoming worthless.”

National Hospital and the other clinics that treat all but the rich have been suffering serious shortages of medicine for months, even though medical supplies and drugs are exempted from the international sanctions.

The problem, medical experts and some diplomats say, arises from both the international bureaucracy and the direct impact of the sanctions.

An official of an international aid group said it took her 15 days to get a license from the U.S. government to send medicine to Haiti. Even then, she couldn’t find transport into Haiti because shippers couldn’t find enough other approved goods to justify a shipment.

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“We gave up doing it legally,” she said, “and had to smuggle it in. It cost so much that we had to cut back on what we could send in.”

Another large obstacle is the impact of the near-total ban on the import of gasoline and diesel fuel. Petroleum is being smuggled into Haiti from the neighboring Dominican Republic, but the price of $8 a gallon makes it unobtainable to all but the rich. That means it is difficult--if not nearly impossible--to transport such essentials as medicine and food to people around the country.

“It is too expensive to ship goods and it is too expensive for people to travel to buy goods, even if they are available,” said a Haitian political figure.

What once was a two-gourd bus ride in the capital now costs 35 gourds. Even at that price, bus owners lose money and have been forced to cut service drastically.

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Also to be reduced, if not eliminated, is the opening of schools in October. Printers have all but run out of paper, and there is no production of books and other school supplies, school officials say.

There also is no cloth to make school uniforms, and, most tellingly, without affordable public transport, thousands of poor children won’t be able to reach schools.

“I have tracked down some of the parents who have left their children at the hospital,” Large said.

“I can’t condone what they have done, but I can tell you most of these poor, confused people truly don’t know what to do. They give up their children because that is their only hope for saving them. They just don’t know what else to do.”

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