Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Haitian village gets rare gift of regular electricity


For the first time in years, the Haitians of Petit-Goave are seeing the light -- regularly.

Children in the small coastal town no longer have to squint under dim kerosene lamps, vendors can serve frosty drinks, and people feel safer.

The arrival of electricity also has a political dimension -- fewer anti-government protests.

"The immediate payoff is undeniable. Light is bringing social stability," said Jean-Marie Vorbe, president of Sogener, the private energy company that brought electricity to Petit-Goave.

"By the end of 2004, every major city except the capital will have 24-hour electricity," he said.

Since April 15, Sogener's two diesel-powered generators have provided the town of 15,000 and neighboring areas with their first constant flow of power in a decade.

In this town of brightly painted cottages, where front porches are battered by salt-laden winds, there's a new sense of well-being. Petit-Goave is an anti-government stronghold, but people here have stopped mounting the often violent protests that used to erupt every few days over questionable elections, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government and its failure to deliver basic services.

Homes aren't electrified, and if they were, most Haitians couldn't afford electricity even at the government-subsidized price.

But in a town that faded into the shadows each night, children can now study under bright streetlights.

``People aren't afraid to go out at night any more,'' said Jesula Israel, 45.

Until three months ago, she provided for her two children by selling cigarettes and candy. Now she can run her refrigerator, and people gather on her porch to buy cold drinks and ice cream.

Private companies sell electricity to the state utility, Haiti Electricity, which resells it at subsidized prices. Five towns have gotten power in the past year, and the government has projects, for example one with the Canadian government, that light another half dozen towns.

Haiti's second city, Cap-Haitien, has had round-the-clock power for a year, and Les Cayes since February. Soon Sogener plans to light up western Gonaives and St. Marc, joint population about 150,000.

"We want to light the way to 2004," the 200th anniversary of independence from France, said Lionel Carre, Haiti Electricity director in Petit-Goave.

But there's a long way to go.

Haiti still lacks the money to upgrade its decrepit web of wires, transformers and electricity poles. Last month a frayed high voltage line snapped and fell onto fans watching a basketball game in Petit-Goave, electrocuting 15 spectators.

Fewer than 6 percent of Haitians have electricity full-time, and blackouts still plague greater Port-au-Prince, the capital and home to about one-third of Haiti's 7.9 million people.

In 1999, Haiti consumed 40 kilowatt hours per capita, compared with 646 in neighboring and black-out prone Dominican Republic, according to the latest UN Human Development Report.

Aristide has pleaded with Haitians to be patient, saying progress takes time in a country whose history is a timeline of political unrest.

"When the price of food goes down, the current of hope rises. Even if there isn't electricity, the current of joy can rise," he said in his 2001 inauguration speech.

Instead, poverty has taken a crueler grip as Aristide's government and the opposition have deadlocked over holding parliamentary elections.

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