HAITIAN FREEDOM. Haitians celebrated liberation recently when President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier fled his country for France. They want to know if the end of Duvalier family rule will alleviate a tradition of governmental exploitation and corruption.
For anyone who was in Port-au-Prince on the morning of Feb. 7, 1986, delirium is not a word but a sound. Waves of sound echoing up the capital's slopes from the lower city. Bells, horns, whistles, chants -- hundreds of thousands of Haitians shouting with joy, hundreds of thousands of bodies jumping up and down on pavements and streets -- all melding into one deafening roar that could be heard distinctly even in the finest, faraway hilltop homes. ``We are torn up by poverty,'' shouted one poor young woman in front of the gleaming white presidential palace. ``But today we are happy because he is gone, he is gone, Jean-Claude is gone.''
Jean-Claude Duvalier, President for Life, had indeed left Haiti for France that morning before dawn. He drove straight to the plane in his own BMW with his wife, Mich`ele, beside him sporting a white turban, a cigarette holder, and a disdainful glare for reporters.
But it remains to be seen whether the end of almost three decades of Duvalier family rule will do anything to alleviate the misery of the 6 to 7 million Haitians (there are no accurate statistics) whose lives truly seem rent asunder by poverty. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and one of the most illiterate.
In the short term, the transitional military-civilian junta -- the National Council of Reconciliation -- faces tremendous problems. Most of the more politically conscious urban population distrusts the Council because it includes figures from the Duvalier regime. Thus, Council members face the difficult task of governing a population strongly opposed to the Duvaliers with an Army and government service largely composed of Duvalier holdovers.
It will also have to set up elections in a country that has very little in the way of organized opposition. Most of all it faces the exaggerated expectations of most Haitians that their lives will improve quickly.
Anyone flying over Haiti who sees the endless stretches of denuded land unfit for any farming realizes the problems that this almost exclusively agricultural country faces. Two centuries of economic exploitation and overpopulation have led to extensive deforestation and the loss of most of the topsoil.
When Haitians overthrew their French masters in 1804, they were the first slave state to have a successful revolt, and they paid the price. The new republic was ostracized by the great world powers, which feared its effect on their own profitable slave trade. Furthermore, control of the country quickly fell into the hands of the urban monied classes, a majority of them mulatto, but some of them pure black. This group exploited the largely peasant population for their own economic benefit. The Duvalier family rule merely continued and intensified this tradition of exploitation and corruption.