THE AMERICAS: Haiti plays down political protests
By Canute James
Financial Times; Aug 08, 2002

The political turmoil that has overtaken the Haitian city of Gonaives this week has brought talk of a serious threat to the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital, government officials yesterday tried to play down the trouble 100km to the north after police lost control of the city of 200,000 people to anti-government groups led by a band of escaped prisoners.

One official insisted that there was no rebellion against the government, although he admitted the affair was “a serious matter in which a few lawless elements, led by known criminals, have caused problems”. The police were dealing with it, he said.

The trouble started at the weekend when armed men used a tractor to break open a prison, releasing 159 inmates. They included Amiot Metayer, a political activist who was once an ally of Mr Aristide, but who is now leading a call for the president’s removal.

Such outbreaks of street violence are not uncommon in Haiti. However, Mr Aristide, a populist former priest, must be concerned about the apparent level of support for the calls for his removal. He was elected in 1990 but overthrown and exiled seven months later, reinstated in 1994 on the back of a US military invasion and returned to office in a landslide victory in 2001.

When he returned from exile, Mr Aristide dismantled the army that had staged the coup, replacing it with a police force. It is this smaller, inadequately equipped and poorly trained constabulary that has been retreating from Gonaives’ stone throwers.

Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere and officials admit that Mr Aristide could eventually suffer from his administration’s inability to deliver on promises of improving the lives of Haitians. Each earns an average of $250 per year, and unemployment is estimated at 60 per cent.

The country’s already poor social and physical infrastructure is crumbling. The International Monetary Fund says the economy declined by about 2 per cent last year.

Mr Aristide’s administration and the opposition have been involved in a protracted and deepening quarrel about political reforms, following legislative elections two years ago that foreign monitors said were manipulated to the advantage of the president’s party. Foreign donors and creditors have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars, saying the political differences must be resolved.

“The president is between a rock and a hard place,” a diplomat in Port au Prince said yesterday. “He has nothing to assuage the concerns of the people who are clamouring for him to go, because he has not been able to get the foreign financial assistance because of the stalled talks with the opposition.

“This will further harden the position of the opposition, making it unwilling to try to find a resolution because it feels it will benefit from increasing unpopularity of the president.”

The events in Gonaives could set back any hope of a resolution of the political dispute. Cýsar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, said: “The new wave of violence and confusion in Gonaives are of extreme concern to the international community.”

Government spokesmen said that the riots in Gonaives, where public buildings have been razed, should indicate to prospective donors and creditors that promised aid should be released.

But the prospects are not encouraging. Both Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, and Poul Nielsen, the European Union commissioner in charge of development and humanitarian aid, have said recently that Haiti has not done enough to resolve the political confusion.