The 91-year-old retired judge held his head in his hands. He had been waiting in the stifling-hot bank building for hours on Friday, trying to cash his monthly pension check of $27.
"I was in line. I cannot stand in line anymore," said Besson Bienaime, easing his slim frame onto a window ledge. "Now it looks like I can't get any money."While the latest U.S. sanctions against Haiti are intended to target the nation's elite, it's the poorer Haitians like Bienaime who fear they'll be hit the hardest.President Clinton announced Friday the United States would block Haiti from most transactions with U.S. banks. The new sanctions also include a ban on commercial air travel between the United States and Haiti, designed to ground wealthy Haitians who support the military junta.
An hour before the announcement in Washington, at least 400 government workers and retirees jammed Haiti's Central Bank, pushing to get to a window to cash their government checks.
For those who have no government checks, their biggest fear is of losing their only remaining lifeline - money sent from relatives in the United States.
Cash remittances have taken on an even greater importance since the United Nations broadened an embargo against Haiti on May 21, stopping cargo flights and charters that carried many packages of goods from relatives abroad.
"We would have starved without this money; everything costs so much now," said Claude Berice, who relies on relatives in Miami and New York to help feed his family.
Washington is exempting wire transfers of under $50, once a month, for families such as the Berices. Such an amount seems substantial in a nation that has an annual per-capita income of $350, but with 60-percent inflation and many goods available only on the black market, the money goes fast.
For example, $50 buys six gallons of gas on the black market.
The immediate cutoff of most financial transactions hits an economy that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere before the army's ouster of the first democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
Diplomats believe the financial move will only exacerbate a banking crisis caused by a shortage of gourdes, the national currency. Under Haitian law, only Parliament can order the printing of more money, but legislators, many fearful of the ruling military, have not managed to form a quorum for months.
Because of the shortage, banks have been forced to use their supplies of U.S. dollars to buy gourdes from rich Haitians. With Washington stopping the flow of most dollars to Haiti, the banks soon may be unable to get more gourdes with which to cash checks.