When university students took to the streets in Port-au-Prince this week, their chants described the nation’s political situation this way: “Aristide has fallen; he’s just stuck in a tree branch.” The chant demonstrates a changing dynamic that threatens the foundations of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government, according to several analysts.
An opposition once limited to a frail coalition of political parties has broadened to include other key groups that bring a new vigor to the political fight. This week alone, a group of writers, a union, the nation’s most prominent business organization, the bar association and a coalition of church and human rights groups all pointedly condemned the government for what one group called creating a “climate of terror.”
Opponents blame Aristide’s administration for letting his supporters paralyze Port-au-Prince with burning barricades a week ago, and letting political gangs intimidate opposition members, among other things.
For some longtime Haiti-watchers, the protests have a familiar ring. ”The reports from Haiti bear a strong resemblance to the events that preceded the downfall of the Duvalier regime in 1986,” said Steve Horblitt, who works for Creative Associates International Inc., a Washington consulting firm with a Haiti office. “[Aristide] has alienated key sectors in Haitian society.”
”The thought that he’ll be bum-rushed out of there is increasing,” said James Morrell, of the Haiti Democracy Project. “The support is really, really dwindling. He’s got armed thugs on the streets. It’s a question of money with [Aristide], and how much money to keep paying them.”
Hard to Read
Analysts say trying to gauge if or when Aristide steps down is a high-risk gamble. As protests erupted around the country Thursday , Aristide was emphatic about finishing his term. The opposition is but a small minority, he said. The president called for peace and warned the Haitian people about the dangers of another coup. Aristide has blamed the unrest on the opposition umbrella group Democratic Convergence and on former military officers who he says are hungry for power. Yet the effects of the last days are resounding from the northern port town of Gonaves to Washington, D.C.
”Haiti is unraveling. We’re meeting to look at what our options are, which are pretty bleak,” a high-level Bush administration official said.
Part of the problem is that there is no clear successor in the post-Aristide era. The opposition Democratic Convergence is a cluster of ideologically divergent parties usually grouped around a personality. And even though Aristide is losing popularity, he still commands loyalty, as evidenced by Friday’s pro-government demonstration.
The demonstration coincided with the 15th anniversary of the deaths of 15 voters in Haiti’s first democratic election after the fall of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship. On Nov. 29, 1987, after months of violence, 100 voters were queuing up to cast ballots at Argentine Bellegarde High School, when army and paramilitary attackers went from classroom to classroom, shooting at and hacking voters with machetes. The elections were later suspended.
”Aristide or death!” 2,000 Aristide partisans chanted Friday, marching to the National Palace. ”If Aristide isn’t there, who will replace him?” In the meantime, more than 1,000 antigovernment demonstrators marched in St. Marc, about 50 miles northwest of the capital.
The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince has said that calling parliamentary elections — to rectify the 2000 elections, which observers said were riddled with fraud — is the only solution. But the Bush administration official said Haiti is “turning into a noncountry.”
Given the lack of a clear post-Aristide leader, some U.S. officials wonder quietly whether Haiti should be declared a ”failed state” and be handed over to the United Nations or the Organization of American States for temporary administration. The most recent round of protests in Haiti began Nov. 17, when a civic group in Cap-Hatien organized a march. With more than 10,000 people, it was the largest demonstration against Aristide and his Lavalas party ever. Other protests followed around the country.
In a show of force, Aristide supporters burned barricades Nov. 22 in Port-au-Prince, paralyzing the city. But many groups have lent their voice in anti-government chants. University students began to speak out after the government took a larger role in running the institution, and high school students took to the streets. Four were shot by police in the western town of Petit-Goave during one march last week, angering many.
The student movement is a bellwether for Haitian politics and shouldn’t be underestimated, said Tony Maingot, a Haiti expert and professor at Florida International University. In 1985, the shooting of three high school students during a demonstration sparked protests that helped oust Jean-Claude Duvalier. ”The history of Haiti is when the high school students get involved, they don’t stop,” Maingot said. “There is a tenacity like piranhas.”