Finding Fuel Is like Walking a Minefield

Article excerpt

AT A STRIP Haitians call "Kuwait City," hundreds of people wave tin funnels along both sides of a rutted road and shout at cars and trucks streaming through.

We must drive this gantlet to buy diesel fuel because of the U.N. oil embargo. What we find is Haiti's only booming industry, black-market oil.

What we discover, too, is what the French-speaking people here call "chien-mange-chien" - a "dog-eat-dog" world.

"It is very hard here, but I do what I need to do," says Gayda DeRois, 27, a mother of two. She will take home $3 today from hawking fuel.

A hard life indeed. Sewage flows with gasoline spilled from the thousands of jugs, buckets and barrels. Pigs run behind barefoot children selling mangoes and picking through garbage as tall as the buses that have come here packed with Haitian people.

Alongside this fuel market, bodies are buried in the field of an old military barracks - a reminder of the terror always near the surface.

A few hours later, the fears become reality: Fire and explosions roar through "Kuwait City," spread by the open fuel containers. A sector of the strip has been destroyed, but the people escaped what could have been an apocalypse.

We were lucky. We were no longer in the area. A young Haitian named Pierre Benoit filled our jeep with diesel fuel for $7 a gallon - a bargain. A few days before, diesel was going for over $10 a gallon.

Benoit is among a new class of entrepreneurs that the U.N. embargo has spawned. Before we left, he told us of his trips to the Massacre River on the border with the Dominican Republic and the smuggling that keeps this country limping along.

"The trips, they are very dangerous," Benoit says. SHORTAGES BREED SUFFERING

At the storied Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, a 14-member Caribbean band performed last week beneath an angry-looking voodoo mask. "Embargo, embargo, embargo," they sang, their biting lyrics fused with the pounding of Haitian drums.

Nowhere in Haiti do you escape the embargo.

In plain view of the Haitian coastline, U.S. warships watch vessels coming and going, stopping many of them to prevent shipments of fuel. On Sunday, 6 million Haitian people are awakening to the first day of new, tougher U.N. sanctions.

These U.S.-orchestrated actions are part of an effort to coerce the security forces to allow the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the president deposed and exiled in a coup three years ago. Most Haitians are convinced that the United States will invade any day now.

Even before these latest sanctions, life here has been turned upside down. Haiti is operating on less than half of the gasoline and diesel fuel that it needs, a U.N. official estimated.

The fuel embargo has worsened problems of the country's mass of poor people and generated new ones for an emerging middle class. In Port-au-Prince, the roughly 30 percent of people who have jobs have difficulty getting to work.

The fuel embargo has created burdens in Haiti that few Americans will ever know. Electricity is scarce throughout the nation, which means that water pumps and refrigerators can't work.

In the city of Cap Haitien, in the north, the power company went out of business last month after people figured ways to tap into the lines and steal electricity.

The cost of food and medicine has doubled. Outside Cap Haitien, a man breaking rocks for paving said he had doubled his price for the rocks because that's what everyone else had done.

Haiti's wealthy suffer fewer inconveniences. They have generators to keep power flowing. In Port-au-Prince, the oil embargo has meant less traffic for them to negotiate with their Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers. Many of them have grown richer in the oil business. …