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Haiti: Caribbean pariah struggles toward respectability

Haiti has long been the pariah of the Caribbean -- partly because it is the hemisphere's poorest nation and also because of the Duvalier family's dictatorial rule.

Moreover, for much of the Caribbean -- English and Spanish speaking -- the country's official French and unofficial Creole patois languages frequently inhibit communication.

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But Haiti is getting a lot of fresh attention these days as it gropes its way along the path toward some economic improvement and a slightly lessened dictatorial rule -- a situation mixed with a growing tide of Haitians wanting to leave the country.

Behind these changes now evident on the island is the country's current Duvalier, Jean Claude, who succeeded his father as the country's president-for-life nine years ago when he was 19.

While Haiti continues to receive black marks for human-rights violations from Amnesty International, the United States Department of State, and the human-rights commission of the Organization of American States, there is little doubt here that Haiti under the young Duvalier is a lot more open a society than under his late father, FrankCois, the notorious "Papa Doc."

Yet thousands of Haitians, unofficially set at 17,000, have arrived in Florida during the past six months, and more keep coming. Their flight, causing problems for the US at a time when more than 115,000 cubans have also arrived, "results from a fascinating combination of economic and political and personal motives," says a foreign observer here who is close to the migration.

"Haitians have long been migrators. Thousands went to Cuba in the 1940s and more thousands went to the Bahamas in the 1950s, while still other thousands migrated across the border to the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, and now the United States is getting the brunt of the migration."

Those that go to the US, however, are not the poorest people on this poverty-stricken island. Indeed most tend to be city dwellers and are able to put out $1,000 or more to make the trip in leaky, unsafe boats manned by tough Haitian sea captains who "know a good thing when they see it," as Haitian Foreign Minister Georges Solomon says.

But life appears brighter in the US, just as life in Cuba, the Bahamas, and the dominican Republic appeared brighter to previous generations of migrators.

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Many of the boat people now in Florida cite the opulence surrounding President Duvalier as one of the reasons for leaving. But even out of the country these Haitians are less critical of the young President than they were of his late father.

Indeed, there is a degree of fondness expressed by large numbers of Haitians toward President Duvalier.

"We are not a hateful people," a local banker here said.

"We rather like the idea of the President living in more fashionable style than the rest of us and anyway Jean-Claude is a lot better than his father -- much less of a dictator, and it is safer to be an opponent of the government today than it was under Papa Doc."

People on the streets of Port-au-Prince and highways of the country tend to make the same point.

Moreover, contrary to what some foreign observers have suggested, the idea of a president-for-life is not abhorrent to a majority of Haitians. There have been seven other such presidents before the Duvaliers.

Still, the boat people leave for the US, spotlighting the island's chronic poverty and the Duvalier rule.

Even if the boat people are not the poorest people in Haiti, Haitians by any standard are poor. A majority of the country's 5.5 million people are either unemployed or working part time. The minimum wage is $2.20 a day. About 80 percent of the population is in agriculture, with coffee and sugar cane the principal crops. Most Haitians live in the countryside, but they are not ones who are doing the migrating. Life expectancy is low at 52.

Jean-Claude Duvalier's rule has doen little to change all this, although a start at economic development has occurred. At least $350 million has been committed by international lending agencies for road construction, housing, hydroelectric facilities, and other infrastructure.

During his nine years in office, the young President has clearly made Haiti a slightly more open society than it was under his father. But some observers say that Haiti is a little more dictatorial today than it was in the years immediately after Jean-Claude came to power. The return of Papa Doc's hated Ton Ton Macoute (Creole for bogeyman) is cited as an example. They are blamed for numerous disappearances in recent months of Haitian opponents of President Duvalier; but several of the stories of their activities have proved to be fabrications.

The result is a mixed picture for this island nation -- an extremely poor island that is experiencing a slight economic upturn, but one that continues to be ruled by a family dynasty.

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