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25986: Wharram (news) Violence intruding on elite in Haiti (fwd)
Posted on Tue, Aug. 16, 2005
Violence intruding on elite in Haiti
Haitians of means have always occupied a tenuous position in their
impoverished nation. Now a wave of violence has pushed many out.
BY JOE MOZINGO
PORT-AU-PRINCE - In the quiet green hills above this lawless city, a couple
hundred of Haiti's well-to-do gathered last month in the upscale Hotel
Montana to attend a daylong seminar. The subject: How to keep one's sanity
under the constant threat of violence.
In the past few months, a surge of kidnappings and killings has traumatized
Haiti's upper classes. Women and children have reportedly been raped in
front of relatives, men have been tortured and families have paid ransoms,
sometimes only to retrieve their loved ones in the form of a mutilated
Some of those wealthy enough to afford it have fled the country, cooling
their heels in Miami and Paris and hoping to return once the chaos runs its
course. Those who have stayed live in a strange state of comfortable siege,
holed up in hillside homes behind iron gates and shotgun-wielding guards,
while making panicked runs to work, the grocery store and the rare social
These days, having money in the hemisphere's poorest nation does not always
entail the easy lifestyle that once got Haiti's privileged few branded by
foreign diplomats as MREs -- Morally Repugnant Elites. Now, theirs is a
narrow, paranoid world, growing more so.
'My family calls me from Miami and says: `What are you, nuts? When are you
getting out of that place?' '' said Jean Pierre Mangones, who runs a program
that promotes Haitian crafts and owns a second home in Plantation. ``A lot
of my friends have left. My wife will be leaving before November.''
No one knows how many have left, but the number of Haitians with the money
to get a visa and fly out is relatively small. The average Haitian earns
less than $1 a day, and there have been estimates that 1 percent of the
country's 8.1 million people controls nearly half its wealth.
The current bout of violence began last year during the armed rebellion that
ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had vowed to help the poor and
had vilified the well-off and the skewed distribution of wealth. Since then,
the political warfare has evolved into waves of brutal crimes blamed on
almost anyone from street criminals to political gangs to drug traffickers.
WANTS TO STAY
Mangones plans to stay. He says Haitians' long tradition of fleeing abroad
when things get dangerous at home has created a devastating, long-term brain
''We are a repugnant elite because we haven't taken any responsibilities,
which is what the elite should do,'' Mangones said. ``Instead, we leave for
a year and come back when somebody fixes it for us.''
And really, nothing is ever fixed.
Wealthy Haitians -- some truly rich, others middle class by American
standards -- simply circumvent the country's problems with money.
Electricity doesn't work? They buy generators. TV is spotty? They hook up a
satellite. Roads are awful? They drive four-wheel-drives. Police force
barely functions? They hire armed guards.
And even in relatively peaceful times, the opportunities for education, high
culture and amusement are so limited that Haitians of any means tend to have
one foot out the door. They send their children to summer camps in the
States, or college in Canada. They buy homes in Florida and the Dominican
Republic and take long vacations in Europe.
''If you want to open the horizons for your children, you have to,'' said
Mangones, whose son attended Barry University in Miami Shores and whose
daughter went to American International in Massachusetts.
But many leave for good, particularly middle-class professionals with no
land or business holdings in Haiti.
Georges Barau Sassine, who owns a garment factory, lost numerous
supervisors, his executive secretary, his head mechanic and his computer
expert in recent months. Only the latter is expected to return -- his son,
whom Sassine told to stay with relatives on the French Riviera until the
situation calmed down.
Sassine said he has seen friends kidnapped and had employees who were hit by
stray bullets while on the job. The owner of a nearby business was executed
on the dirt road in front of the factory.
''People on the street told us we were next,'' he said.
In July, when kidnappings hit a frightening high, Sassine woke up in a sweat
every day before dawn, worrying about the morning commute.
''I would drive down with one hand on the wheel and one hand on my gun,'' he
said at his office earlier this month. ``The second I arrived, I called my
wife and told her I'm here.''
In the past few weeks, a slight lull in the crime -- what Sassine calls the
''eye of the hurricane'' -- has allowed him to put the gun back under his
seat. Sassine accuses Aristide loyalists of waging the campaign of violence,
sowing chaos to prevent the U.S.-backed interim government from gaining any
effective authority. Aristide supporters deny he or his Lavalas Family party
are behind it.
As president, Aristide attacked the elite as a light-skinned minority
aligned with U.S. business interests and perpetuating a class system that
has kept most Haitians in abject poverty.
Business and academic leaders reacted against Aristide in an opposition
movement that gained supporters across all sectors, while a band of gang
members and ex-soldiers forced him out.
Since then, life for rich and poor alike has just grown worse, and the
specter of class war continues to loom over Haiti as it prepares for
national elections, scheduled for November.
Business leaders say economic growth is the only way to lift most Haitians
out of poverty. Sassine employs 700 workers now, sewing sweat pants for
Hanes. If he leaves the country, his employees join the estimated two-thirds
of Haitians who have no jobs.
But he says he has no plans to. ''We're stuck here,'' he said. ``I have no
capital. The hits we have taken have dilapidated our reserves.''
After work, he unwinds when he can, but there is little to do. The roads are
rife with carjackers and kidnappers. He no longer goes hunting for guinea
fowl and doves in the Artibonite Valley. He does not relax on the Ctes des
Arcadins, where some own beach homes.
Ginette Maguet, a psychologist in the capital who helped organize the
Montana Hotel seminar on keeping one's sanity, said the violence is causing
symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder -- trembling hands, insomnia,
To help them cope, Maguet tutored the participants in yoga and breathing
techniques, and urged them to go easy on the sedatives. She told them to be
aware of their surroundings without becoming hyper-focused on the
possibility of violence.
''We have to be vigilant about being safe, but we don't have to think of it
all the time,'' Maguet said. ``Some people just listen to the radio all day
and it just increases the fear.''
Bernie Leon, 46, joined dozens of others at the Petionville Club on a recent
night to drink and get away from that kind of paranoia. A cheerful bear of a
man who runs one of the capital's port terminals, he mingled amid the flow
of alcohol, beat of music and tropical heat.
It was a momentary break from a different reality. Earlier in summer, his
wife moved to Miami due to the violence. While the relief of not having to
worry about her was like ''taking a piano off my back,'' the distance has
put an obvious strain on his relationship. ''She said if I don't move out in
a year, we're getting a divorce,'' he quipped.
He hopes circumstances change and allow him to stay. ``I'm devoted to this
country. I don't need to be here. I could easily get on a plane and drink
piña coladas with you in South Beach tonight, but I don't.''
© 2005 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.