Haiti Is under the Grip of Wealthy Elites, U.S. Finds

Article excerpt

Among the Haitian VIPs mixing with President Bill Clinton were some of this impoverished country's richest people. In U.S. Embassy circles they are known as MREs - the morally repugnant elites.

"They control everything," said one veteran American official who asked for anonymity. He is involved in a dispute over U.S. policy toward a handful of mulatto families who for generations have bribed government officials while extracting millions from a society where the average worker is lucky to make $6 a day.

The wealthy elites have amassed fortunes by avoiding taxes so that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and previous governments have had little revenue to finance government services. For decades, Haiti has been almost totally dependent on religious charities and U.S. and other international aid to fend off hunger and epidemic disease.

Based on U.S. documents and interviews with Haitian scholars, business and political leaders as well as U.S., Latin American and European diplomats, the elites today are at the core of "The Mix," the Haitian euphemism for corruption. The Mix has left most of the 6.4 million people without roads, schools, hospitals, housing, public transportation, electricity, sewage or a safe water supply.

Breaking the wealthy elites' grip on government and business may be Aristide's most dangerous mission. When he tried it before, the elites underwrote Gen. Raoul Cedras' 1991 coup, which sent Aristide into an exile that ended only when the United States restored him to power by force of arms last October.

Ironically, the elites benefited from the bloodless U.S. invasion of 21,000 troops that has cost an estimated $900 million of U.S. money. Piers, fuel storage tanks, warehouses and other property used by the U.S. military provided the wealthy who owned them with a windfall, U.S. embassy officials said.

While in exile in Washington and since his return to office, Aristide has been pressured by U.S. government officials to seek an accommodation with his wealthy opponents. "It's part of the democratic process," said a senior U.S. official. "They are Haitians, too.'`

But some Haitian experts believe the wealthy elites will soon corrupt Aristide government officials and derail any efforts to finance even modest public welfare programs.

Among them, the elites control Haiti's petroleum, telephones, electricity, cement, sugar, flour, plastic, soap, cooking oil, steel and iron.

Writing in the journal Current History, Professor Anthony Maingot of Florida International University in Miami argues that the failure to prosecute the wealthy elites and those involved in drug smuggling is a signal that there are no penalties for criminal behavior in Haiti.

Many of the elites are descendants of about 200 mainly German immigrants who took control of the country's international trade in the 19th century and exploited Haiti throughout the 20th century.

Most notable are the families Mev, Acra, Brandt, Madsen and Bigio. They refused to be interviewed for this story or were out of the country and unreachable. …