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Aristide’s Effort to Reform Haiti Stymied by Inefficiency, Inaction : Caribbean: Government weakness and doubt about his commitment to a free-market economy slow pace of foreign aid and frustrate the president’s plans for change.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than three months after U.S. troops put him back in the presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his government are mired in much the same ineffectiveness, indecision and incompetence that so identified the army regime they replaced, according to diplomats and Haitian business and political leaders.

“Right now,” said one diplomat, “it’s the same broken-down bus, only we have a different driver.”

That assessment, widely shared here, arises from a catalogue of tangible problems, government weakness and inaction, and the slow pace of international aid. There also is an emotional perception that ordinary life is just as miserable for most Haitians as it was during the military dictatorship.

The roads are still largely impassable. An increase in ordinary crime has made life as fearful and violent as it was when the junta was in control and political wrongdoing was rife. Government services are nearly nonexistent. There is no working justice system. And Aristide and the national legislature have failed to organize a new political structure.

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Other sources say the situation isn’t that bad, pointing to the end of a punishing international embargo that was designed to force the military to give up the power it seized in September, 1991.

“The embargo closed us down,” said Georges Sassine, a Haitian businessman who had been forced to shut his textile plant because of the sanctions. “I was the last to close and the first to reopen. So I am satisfied on that count.”

There are other improvements as well: readily available gasoline, more consumer goods and a sense of relief resulting from the virtual elimination of the old regime’s brutal military and civilian security forces.

“Obviously, there are problems, severe ones,” one U.S. diplomat said, “and there are plenty of things Aristide has and hasn’t done that are open to criticism. But no one can overstate the problems he faces, and I think it is unfair to dismiss him after just three months. He needs a break.”

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The American official added, “Aristide wants to go 100 miles an hour, but the engine can’t even do 30.”

U.N. spokesman Eric Falt, one of the few diplomats willing to speak on the record, added on behalf of the president: “The Haitian government has started the process of restructuring. It is an extremely difficult task that will take time and patience. Meanwhile, there is understandable frustration and many obstacles.”

The most immediate problem is the lack of a viable economy. Business is stymied by a lack of capital and credit. Continuing doubts about Aristide’s commitment to conservative economic programs and his government’s stability also have slowed both international and local investment.

According to one business group--the Center for Democracy and Free Enterprise--only nine of more than 100 plants that operated here before the 1991 coup have reopened, employing at most 2,000 workers in factories that once employed 60,000.

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“There is no doubt” that both foreign and Haitian investors are holding back because of doubts about the government, according to Sassine, a director of the center.

To the disappointment of many Haitians, expectations of a $500-million foreign aid package, including $200 million from the United States, have not been met.

“That’s partly Aristide’s fault,” one U.S. official said, “partly ours, partly the fault of other donors, but mostly it is a problem of understandable but unrealistic expectations that can be blamed on misunderstanding of how the aid program works.”

Other diplomats are more severe in their views. “Every (government) ministry is very weak and requires a high level of technical assistance,” one critic said. “The fact is, it is a reach to call it a government. It is more like a loosely organized club, which has lost its rules of order and organization.”

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He and other concerned diplomats say there is a destructive shortage of trained government employees, a void unlikely to be filled soon, even if technical assistance funds for training were available--and they aren’t.

“I have real concern about the government’s ability to absorb the aid and real concern over attracting qualified experts that could help at state salaries,” the diplomat said.

By his and other expert accounts, a direct result of the Haitian government’s weakness is its slow pace in presenting detailed programs on how the $500 million in development aid would be spent.

“We would love to give (Aristide) money to build roads, power plants and other infrastructure,” an international aid official said. “But we can’t do it until he shows us specific plans to use the funds effectively.”

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On the other hand, many governments, mainly France and Canada, have yet to allocate sums they had promised; the Americans are accused by Haitian government economists of getting bogged down in bureaucracy.

“AID (the Agency for International Development) issues press releases bragging about one program or another,” a Finance Ministry official said, “but the actual disbursement of the funds is minor.”

U.S. officials say, on the other hand, that not only has Aristide been slow in properly processing his aid requests, but he is still afflicted by an old mentality that the outside world should be doing for Haiti what it should be doing itself.

A prime example is the Port-au-Prince electrical system. Starved of fuel and plagued by breakdowns and a lack of spare parts, the capital under the military regime was blacked out for days at time. Within a week of the American intervention, the U.S. Army donated several hundred thousand gallons of fuel and equipment to restore nearly full-time light and power.

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The Haitians then were told that they would have to keep up the system on their own by arranging and paying for fuel purchases and organizing repairs and upkeep.

Arguing that there wasn’t any money, they didn’t perform, a situation made worse when government functionaries fired several power company engineers because they had worked for the military.

As a result, pleas by the Aristide government for more U.S. military help have been rejected, and this capital has returned to severe electricity rationing and long blackouts.

If all that weren’t enough, many business people are too inexperienced to operate in the modified competitive market system that the United States and Aristide’s financial advisers say is necessary.

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“Too many here only know the process of bribery, monopoly and just plain criminal greed that has marked us for decades,” a Haitian financial expert said.

So unemployment remains in the same 85% range that it was in under the military regime. The potholed streets and highways continue more as traps for cars than as roadways. Garbage clogs streets and sidewalks. Hundreds of children, gaunt women and maimed men descend on anyone who looks at all affluent to beg for pennies, while thousands of Haitians jam the streets looking for work. Others sell whatever they can, including themselves, and the increase in prostitutes is evident.

Even where there has been improvement, unforeseen problems have developed. Violence by the military has all but disappeared, particularly in the capital, with the elimination of the army as an institution, and the restructuring of the police. But common street violence, including armed robbery and murder, have more than filled the void.

“Clearly,” said one U.S. official, “no one wants to return to the pre-Aristide days. But I don’t think anyone, including the United States, realized how difficult this all would be.”

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