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Aristide's brutal tactics inflame Haiti

"You had armed, progovernment people shooting at demonstrators and so on. I myself was surrounded by those individuals with the masks, their faces covered, heavily armed, who were setting up positions along the city high up waiting for the demonstrators to come by. So on those days there is a lot of rock throwing, people driving around in pickup trucks with the guns. And it can get pretty scary."

That was the Miami Herald's Michael Ottey on National Public Radio on Monday reporting from Port-au-Prince. The shooters are called chimeres, Ottey explained. "That's the term that's used, but that translates to thugs basically. And these are individuals who support (President Jean Bertrand) Aristide. Some say that they're paid by Aristide for their support . . . you know, he condemns the violence on both sides, but these guys still roam around with weapons."

The last time a Haitian government used this kind of force against its own people the U.S. military intervened. The year was 1994 and Gen. Raoul Cedras had forcibly removed President Aristide from power. Aristide's supporters in Washington argued that Cedras was violently purging his opposition and that U.S. military assistance would save Haiti's fledgling democracy. Now Aristide is waging his own jihad against his opponents to squelch dissent.

Expression of that dissent has ballooned across Haiti since Dec. 5, when student protesters were attacked by government supporters. In that incident, the university's rector who went to mediate had his legs broken with an iron bar. Aristide's use of government resources to put down dissent is also becoming less discreet. His opponents report that during one protest march armed government supporters emerged from the government-owned telephone company and that they have been seen driving around in public-utility vehicles.

Last week the Catholic Church, an important mediator in the crisis, withdrew a proposal it had on the table for a negotiated settlement with Aristide. Most of his opposition, which now includes many groups that once supported him, have also withdrawn from a negotiating stance, demanding instead his resignation. The opposition wants the U.S. government to support its position on the grounds that the systematic intimidation and brutality that is being employed by the president to achieve absolute power is flatly undemocratic.

Opposition leaders believe that the longer the United States clings to the notion that negotiation with Aristide is an option, the more potentially flammable the situation grows and the more chaotic his eventual removal will be.

Aristide's election victory in 2000 was notable because voter turnout was under 10 percent. Independent international observers judged the 2000 Senate elections to be fraudulent, concluding that his opponents were right in their allegation that his Lavalas Party openly stole seats. On Jan. 12, Parliament's term expired and due to the political logjam there were no new elections. Aristide is now ruling by decree.

The collapse of the democracy and the deteriorating economic conditions have swelled the opposition. Far from the few "light-skinned oligarchs" whom Aristide's supporters once claimed were his only opponents, the democratic opposition now looks like, well, Haiti. Ottey described the demonstrators he observed: "They're students. They're members of civil society. They're church-based groups."

The Group of 184, a coalition of civic organizations hoping to promote democratic change, is a key opposition leader. It says waves of students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, churches, businesses and popular organizations are fast joining the ranks of Aristide opponents. One of the country's most important peasant groups _ based in the Central Plateau and numbering well over 100,000 _ was once closely allied to Aristide. Today it is a prominent critic.

"Never in our history have we had such unity across classes," Andy Apaid, the titular leader of 184 told me by phone from Port-au-Prince last week. "The population is longing for good governance," he says, adding that estimates of crowds marching for an Aristide resignation have now reached the tens of thousands. "But because of the intimidation this mobilization is only the tip of the iceberg. If the U.S. would show some leadership, we could turn this boat around."

According to Apaid, 184 worked for a solution that would have left Aristide in office but would have allowed for a "neutral" government chosen by a mix of political interests. Aristide's response was to raise the level of violence, he says. Now, as Ottey noted on NPR, protesters are "saying that they want the president to resign because he's corrupt, he's trampled on the constitution."

On that count there seems to be little dispute. The U.S. State Department has issued this official statement: "We call on President Aristide to act to end the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations by Haitian government-sponsored gangs. President Aristide must exercise responsible leadership and respect the fundamental rights of all Haitians including opposition parties and civil society."

The European Union has a similar stance. It says that Haiti "cannot remain indifferent to the reprisals which have been carried out or announced against members of civil society, the opposition, the universities and the press."

Even Democratic congressman Charles Rangel, a prominent member of Washington's Congressional Black Caucus, seems to have lost the faith in Aristide he once had. Rangel's chief of staff, George Dalley, told the newspaper The Hill that his boss had met with Aristide to let him know that his support in Washington was deteriorating due to continuing reports of problems, corruption and drug trafficking. He also said, "Charlie was disappointed, because despite feeling in each occasion that he was heard by Aristide, he increasingly thought it was a futile effort to change the course of President Aristide."

That's the same conclusion that a majority of Haitians, victims of state violence and poverty-inducing corruption, have reached. A U.S. recognition of Aristide's bad faith would go a long way in helping the destitute and troubled nation begin to find a path toward peace.

Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal 2004 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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