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Sept. 16, 2003

Political instability chases away hopes of achieving better life

A scrapped automobile sits on the streets of Port-au-Prince as a Mercedes Benz passes a pedestrian.

hrough dictators, military rulers and a fledgling democracy, little has changed in Haiti: the people remain prisoners of poverty, political instability and violence.

“The political class in Haiti has failed miserably the Haitian people,” said U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Quincy, who has traveled to Haiti about 10 times. “To see the failure of their political leadership - I’m not singling out anyone particularly, it is the entire political class that has failed.”

Haiti, a country roughly a third larger than Massachusetts, wasn’t always punished by poverty.

In the 18th century, the Caribbean nation was a lucrative possession for the French, who shipped slaves there from Africa and developed a burgeoning sugar industry.

The slaves revolted and in 1804 formed the world’s first black republic. While the nation has survived, political stability has always been elusive.

The country’s recent history has been marred by violence and repression. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president in 1957 and soon after proclaimed himself president for life. His secret police, called Tonton Macoutes, used murder and intimidation to quell resistance.

When Duvalier died in 1971, his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, inherited the presidency. “Baby Doc” reigned until 1986, when he fled amid a popular uprising by poor and hungry Haitians.

Gen. Henri Namphy assumed leadership, and the groundwork was laid for the 1990 democratic elections that saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide installed as president.

In September 1991, seven months after he took office, Aristide was ousted in a coup orchestrated by the army and backers of the Duvalier dynasty. The new rulers terrorized the country and killed supporters of Aristide, who had been exiled after the coup.

U.S. forces restored Aristide to power in 1994. Barred from seeking a second consecutive term under the Haitian constitution, Aristide helped ally René Préval win election in 1995.

Aristide was elected to a second five-year term in 2000, but legislative elections held the same year were widely criticized as tainted because of the way votes were tallied. As a result, the United States has blocked the release of $500 million in international aid, causing further economic collapse.

Tension and violent clashes between Aristide and the opposition party continue. Aristide, a former priest who brazenly preached against the Duvaliers while serving in Port-au-Prince slums, remains popular among the nation’s poor. His relationship with the U.S. government has soured, however, with the United States blaming him for failing to condemn violent protests and protect the safety of opposition party members.

In a country with no natural resources and virtually no industry, the ongoing political instability has chased away hope of building an economy that can pull people out of poverty.

Delahunt said he believes the country can still make strides to dig itself out and said the “Haitian diaspora” - Haitians living outside the country, including those in the United States - should play a role.

“You have to resolve the political impasse,” he said. “You need a whole new wave of political leaders, in my judgment. This is so cultural, and it’s so embedded. These are people who have been beaten for so long, for all 200 years of their independence.”

Karen Eschbacher may be reached at

Stories by
Karen Eschbacher
Photos by
Gary Higgins

The Patriot Ledger

A Daily Struggle to Survive: Volunteers help fight starvation in Haiti:

Haitian Burn Victim gets Aid - and a New Family

Faces of Haiti: The LaFontaine family

Links to the South Shore of Massachusetts: Milton dentist gives Haitians the simple gift of a smile

Haiti's History: Political instability chases away hopes of achieving better life

Personal Journal

Numbers That Count: Food & Nutrition

Small map of Haiti (90KB)

Large map of Haiti (100KB)

Photos from Haiti (462KB)

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