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Haitians' Hooray Fades as Troubles Drag On

IN the three months since the United States helped restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti, the wave of joy over his return has peaked and then plummeted.

Crime has hit the Caribbean nation full force, past and present members of the military have clashed in a violent confrontation, and the basics of running a country - from providing electricity to whisking away garbage - have further decayed.

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The report card on how well and how fast the Aristide government is responding to the demands of the country is mixed. ``It's going as well as it can and we expected,'' says US Agency for International Development (AID) deputy director Sarah Clark. ``We've done as well - or better - as we can do. It just takes time.''

But Haitians continue to wonder: Where is the promised foreign aid to provide jobs, reopen factories, and build power plants?

President Aristide has won applause for his actions to scale down the military. Shortly after taking office, Aristide transferred more than a dozen commissioned officers overseas and dismantled the existing armed forces. He plans to reduce the 7,500-member Army to a force of 1,500.

Last week, all those soldiers not dismissed by a designated commission were transferred to the Interim Police Force, leaving Haiti in effect with no armed forces. And on Jan. 7, the building that housed the former military has been designated as the new home for the ministry for women's affairs.

But even Aristide's efforts on the military front have not been without critics. Only 200 of an estimated police force of 2,500 have enrolled in a AID vocational-training program for those not selected to serve on the force.

US officials blame the low numbers on the fact that the selection process was slow to start. Members of the Haitian government say AID did not promote or recruit for the program.

The conflict between old and new forces came to a head on Dec. 27, when a group of disgruntled, recently released soldiers stormed military headquarters for their back pay. Four were killed and least six wounded in the skirmish, the most violent since the US military landed in September 1994 to restore Aristide to power.

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With security problems ongoing, Haiti has little hope of progressing. ``The first priority for any investment must be stability,'' says economist Kesner Pharel.

``That hasn't been achieved here yet. There are unemployed soldiers who haven't been disarmed. That means potential trouble,'' he says.

``And crime is up, with businesses as targets. It's logical that people won't invest if there's a risk of losing their capital.''

IT is also an election year. The mandate of all but eight of the 2,205 parliamentary and local government officials expired this week. The parliamentarians have continued to meet, saying they would pass laws until Feb. 4, the day they were sworn in four years ago. But the legitimacy of their decisions is in question.

General elections are expected by early April, with presidential elections to follow by the end of the year. No dates have been set yet.

``That's another reason the private sector is waiting before they invest,'' Mr. Pharel adds. ``They want to see who's in charge of what and what kind of programs they're going to announce.''

Before investment begins to trickle in, Haiti is dependent on donor money. After restoring Aristide to power on Oct. 15, the US, along with a half-dozen other countries, immediately paid off the country's $82 million debt. This removed the legal obstacle to accessing $236 million in projects that the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank had allocated prior to the coup against Aristide in 1991.

A group of donor countries will meet in Paris Jan. 30 to 31 to pledge their contributions to help Haiti get back on its feet. A joint mission of donor agencies has already come up with a $662 million emergency economic-recovery plan.

``Money is not the problem,'' said AID's Ms. Clark. ``We're poised and ready to go, but we can only go as fast as the speed of the administrations of both countries. It takes a while for the systems to mesh.''

The Aristide government inherited serious structural problems, after a history of self-serving and corrupt governments. One financial consultant for the government estimates that previous administrations spent less than 10 percent of the foreign aid received.

``The most serious problem is the absorption capacity,'' a financial consultant explains. ``This isn't a problem that popped up three days ago: There's a lingering odor from years before.''

Yet some analysts are optimistic that the money already ear-marked for development, along with private investment will help lift Haiti out of its abyss.

``Everyone is realizing it's a dog-eat-dog society,'' said an administrator in one of the financial lending institutions.

``Aristide has succeeded in neutralizing and reassuring those who have been suspicious of him,'' a foreign analyst says. ``That psychological reassurance, along with a well-defined economic plan and increased financial assistance may result in some economic growth this year.''

Meanwhile the government is scurrying to resolve small but critical logistical difficulties.

All of the ministries are over-staffed and underequipped. They lack basic work tools like computers and software, to say nothing of desks and chairs that AID has promised but not yet delivered.

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