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As Haiti stabilizes, progress still slow

Jacqueline Charles
McClatchy Newspapers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - For the first time in years, Haiti is enjoying relative political stability.

There is not-so-good news as well. Progress has been slow, frustrations are growing, international donors are complaining and lawmakers are bickering. Crime remains high, and the slow pace of government may be steering the nation back toward paralysis.

''We are building a country, and it's not easy,'' said Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, defending the government. "I don't think there is a form of government as difficult as a democracy."

But confounding problems face President Rene Preval. Following his election a year ago this month, Preval formed a coalition government in hopes of avoiding a repeat of what happened during his first presidential term from 1996 to 2001, when a nonfunctioning parliament paralyzed his government.

"The problems in Haiti are so enormous that you could justify prioritizing almost every one at the top of the list," said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham.

"But you cannot put 50 items at the top of the list," Graham said, echoing criticisms that the government's priorities change from meeting to meeting and lack strategies for implementation.

"Initially Preval said education; six months later, roads, roads, roads. There needs to be a commitment to a clearly articulated short list of priorities and then demonstrate the ability to organize and get something done," Graham said.

Graham, who visited here in October, said he has been waiting months for a list of what kind of experts the government needs as part of a planned $10 million effort to recruit Haitians in the United States and Canada to work in Haiti. The program is being funded by the Inter-American Development Bank.

"We are ready to go to be of assistance, but we still haven't gotten that list of requirements," Graham told The Miami Herald.

Alexis said the criticisms are unwarranted. Haiti, he said, is still waiting on donors to turn over "the kind of dollars they need to give for the country to develop."

"President Preval and I have defined where we want to go," he told The Miami Herald. "I don't believe they have a problem with our priorities. I believe it's their bureaucracy.'

Donors publicly downplay concerns, preferring to tout their aid programs, including almost $10 million to train parliament members. Privately, however, they say they are telling Preval and Alexis to get moving or risk losing badly needed dollars.

Victor Benoit, head of one of the six major political parties in Preval's fragile coalition government, agrees. "The population doesn't have the sense that the government is moving forward," he said.

Alexis acknowledged that little progress has trickled down to the people, but he listed several government advances:

_For the past two weeks, Preval has been meeting at 5 p.m. every day with Alexis and cabinet ministers, asking for updates on projects and pledged dollars.

"Before the elections you had political fragmentation. Today, we have a government capable of governing," said Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States. "There is an active engagement of people in the process."

_Graduated 500 new Haitian National Police officers to help fight the wave of kidnappings and other crimes gripping the capital, and began tough vetting of police officers for signs of corruption. Both the government and the U.N. peacekeeping mission here have beefed up efforts to reclaim chunks of the city once controlled by armed gangs.

"Haiti today is horrible, the level of violence, kidnappings, corruption," said Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission here. "But if you compare the picture of Haiti today with a year ago, it's a very positive evolution. It's very complicated, difficult. It will be better."

_Formed a task force to help Haiti take advantage of HOPE, a U.S. bill for duty-free textile exports approved by Congress last December and expected to create thousands of jobs in the poverty-stricken nation of eight million.

Preval has remained relatively silent amid the burgeoning complaints, choosing instead to run public service TV and radio announcements telling Haitians to respect one another.

Determined not to return the government to paralysis, he has instructed Alexis to prevent a clash with parliament. But with most of the lawmakers being first-time politicians and new to their duties and powers, some Haitians say clashes are inevitable.

Preval will have to do more than just take out ads, some analysts say. He'll have to shake things up, replacing ineffective ministers.

"We have political peace," said Jean-Marie Pierre, 20, who lives in the Bel Air neighborhood, near the presidential palace. "But the people are dying from hunger; dying from misery. This country is finished, completely broken."

Said Leon Saint-Louis, a professor of public law at the State University of Haiti: "The population is losing confidence. They don't see them working, they only see them fighting," he said.

Opposition Sen. Rudy Boulos said he doesn't share the anxiety about the 129-member parliament. It's growing pains, he said.

"They have slipped up a little bit, gotten into fights that took their time and were not vital neither for democracy nor governance," he said. "This is in the normal result of getting to know one another and acting within a group and facing other centers of powers."

For a while, parliament appeared to be playing its role. Members passed the budget in record time and threatened Alexis with a vote of no confidence over the deteriorating security environment.

Then came the traffic ticket.

A member of the lower chamber alleged that he was beaten by a police inspector after being pulled over for driving the wrong way. The issue erupted into a fight between parliament and the National Police, with the chamber of deputies passing a nonbinding resolution demanding the inspector be fired.

Soon after, the Senate was rocked by allegations that several senators had accepted $200,000 in bribes to pass a resolution nullifying a decision by the executive on a bank merger. Parliament announced last week that a five-member commission would investigate the allegations.

"They don't see this as a unique window of opportunity Haiti has," Mulet said, referring to the parliament and its lack of focus on big issues. "They are acting as if this is a traditional country. Haiti has special problems and should have special and exceptional actions and measures to solve them."

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