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In Haiti, equality does exist: Rich and poor both know fear

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Gasoline is in short supply, but this country is running on fear.

The poor fear that if they aren't killed by the army and police they will surely die for lack of food.

The economy of this country _ the poorest in the Western Hemisphere _ has collapsed under the double blows of a violent military coup in September and an economic embargo since then.

The rich in turn are afraid of the poor, afraid that they will one day swarm out of their sun-parched, stinking slums, to kill people as they sleep in cool mansions on the hillsides.

That is how both rich and poor thought in Haiti during the decades of brutal rule by the Duvalier family dictatorship. But the seven-month rule of the country's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has complicated the old system here. Aristide was overthrown in a military-led coup on Sept. 30.

"Before Aristide, they knew they were always in power," said a prominent businessman, referring to the military and police. "Now they have lost some pawns. That's why they reacted so violently."

The military and police have killed at least 1,500 people since the coup, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

In Cite Soleil, a Port-au-Prince slum, on the concrete floor of a house there are two black drums from the Industrial Chemical and Supply Co. of Tampa, labeled "sodium hydroxide solution, danger, corrosive."

They are being used to store water, which the Cite Soleil residents must buy since there is no running water, no well, no tap anywhere close.

But the man in this house says there is no danger _ he washed the drums.

What really frightens him, he says, is the idea of mentioning the name of the president.

"I have three things that I like in my life. My God first, my health, and my family."

He made it clear that he thought any talk of politics would not help his health.

"When you want to know everything in your life, it can be dangerous," he said.

In the countryside, where rural bosses called chefs de section run their own little kingdoms, almost no one will talk politics. The same is true among the lines of boat people now arriving daily from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Even some of the elite are afraid of the military, afraid that their political views expose them to danger.

Sitting at the bar of a downtown hotel, one of the richest men in the country heard his two-way radio crackle, grabbed it, and ran off to hold a whispered conversation on the telephone. Then he came back to describe how he spent 11 days in jail in October, buying buckets of water there so he could bathe, and how soldiers broke into his house, leaving long dotted lines of bullet-holes running down the front hallway as a warning.

He sleeps somewhere else now.

Another man who knows fear well is Rene Theodore, the man the Organization of American States would like to become prime minister.

A squad of young men stared coldly through a high metal gate at his headquarters until reporters poked their press cards through the gate. They opened it just wide enough to let people in.

Theodore, longtime head of Haiti's small Communist Party, had called reporters over to tell them how the night before, shots were fired twice outside his house and a rock was thrown at the house from a neighbor's garden. It was one of three police attacks on politicians this week.

In fact, Theodore probably wanted reporters around as protection, to add to his bodyguards.

That's because police had called Theodore to say they wanted to come by and talk to him.

Apparently they wanted to discuss the autopsy of one of his bodyguards who was killed by police during a raid on a meeting he was holding with the leaders of several political parties Jan. 25.