Originally: Haiti’s poverty incites armed men to gather, plan;
They gather behind locked gates, in a house guarded by young men with
pump-action shotguns, high in the hills above the capital.
An odd collection of business owners and labor leaders, professionals and
factory workers, many of the men here once tried to mediate between President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide and opposition politicians in their dispute over flawed
Now they meet on their own, plotting strategy, issuing communiques and
denouncing the government.
As the hemisphere’s poorest nation slides back toward chaos, they say
Aristide has not done enough to resolve the three-year deadlock that has led
international donors to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
“We’re trying to tell the powers that be that they are failing in the way
they are running the country,” said labor leader Joseph Montes.
As the standoff grinds on, opposition to Aristide is growing. In scores of
demonstrations since November, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to
demand the resignation of a government they say is incompetent, corrupt and
intolerant of dissent.
In recent weeks, they have been joined by a broadening array of individuals
and institutions. Doctors, teachers and others have joined strikes for more pay
and better working conditions, and an unprecedented coalition of manufacturers’
associations and labor unions, professional guilds and student groups, human
rights advocates and journalists’ organizations is calling on Aristide to create
the conditions for free, open and credible elections.
Others are simply fleeing. The widely broadcast footage of 235 Haitians and
Dominicans scrambling for Virginia Key in Miami’s Biscayne Bay last fall
recalled the thousands who attempted the dangerous passage during the coup that
ousted Aristide from 1991 to 1994.
Police apprehended 19 Haitians who landed at Palm Beach County in February.
The Coast Guard intercepted a dozen more in a boat off Miami earlier in the
month. On one day in January, at least 64 tried to reach the U.S. Virgin
Islands; five drowned.
It is not known how many have slipped past authorities. Cesar Gaviria,
secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said Haitians are
using migration “as an escape valve from the country’s problems.”
Aristide — once seen as the best hope for this Caribbean nation of 8 million
after three decades of brutal Duvalier family rule — blames the upper classes,
opposition politicians and the international community for blocking progress.
“Yes, we may have less [support] than we had in 1990,” the former slum priest
said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “But I think the huge
majority of the Haitian people continue to support me. And if you compare what I
have and what the one who comes behind me can get — there you will see a huge
margin of difference.”
Indeed, supporters of the government have disrupted protest demonstrations
and staged mass rallies of their own. At least five Haitians have been killed
and more than 350 injured in the clashes.
“Life is impossible,” said Montes, the labor leader. “Every sector in the
country is threatened.”
The current unrest dates to the parliamentary elections of May 2000, widely
seen as flawed. Aristide’s Lavalas Family swept the polls, but observers say
some of the races should have gone to a second round.
The United States, the European Community and other foreign donors have
frozen grants and loans totaling $500 million — the size of Haiti’s national
budget — while the Organization of American States and others attempt to
mediate between the government and the main opposition parties.
The suspension of aid has further impoverished an already poor nation. The
average Haitian lives on $250 per year; unemployment is estimated at 70 percent.
“I can’t buy coffee. I can’t buy kerosene for my lamp,” 61-year-old Elgira
Mondesir said at a recent antigovernment rally in the northern city of Cap-
Haitien. “I’m here because I’m fed up.”
Aristide has called the freeze a form of economic “apartheid” intended to
keep blacks down.
“If some people don’t want Haiti to promote economic growth, it’s always to
point a finger at Haiti to say, “Hey, don’t do that, you see they were the first
black independent country in the world but they are so poor today — you better
stay where you are instead of fighting for freedom,’ ” he said. “That’s their
Aristide has pledged to hold new legislative elections this year, but
opposition politicians have refused to participate without security guarantees.
Negotiations remain deadlocked; Gaviria, the OAS general-secretary, has said
“the window for democratic elections has narrowed drastically.”
Aristide’s supporters have broken up opposition demonstrations, and the
government is accused of funding and arming political gangs to rally support and
intimidate dissent. The U.S. Committee for Refugees counted more than 150
“political murders, suspicious disappearances or deaths, and quasi-political
gangland slayings” in Haiti last year.
Aristide faces growing pressure from the international community to bring to
justice supporters who commit crimes in his name. But the government’s attempt
to prosecute one gang leader last summer showed the difficulty of the task.
The arrest of Amiot “Cubain” Metayer, suspected of ordering the killing of an
opposition aide, set off weeks of street protests in the northern city of
Gonaves. Finally members of a group called Cannibal Army commandeered a backhoe
and pulled down a prison wall, freeing Metayer and more than 150 other prisoners
as police fled the city.
The gang held Gonaves for days, burning government buildings and calling for
Aristide’s resignation. Metayer remains free; authorities have said it would be
too dangerous to attempt to arrest him again.
Without guarantees of law and order, the coalition of more than 180
civil-society institutions has said it will not support elections. The coalition
has demanded authorities prosecute criminals, protect civil liberties, free
political prisoners, allow peaceful demonstrations and guarantee freedom of the
“We fought for democracy,” said school principal Jean Lavaud Frederick, head
of an educators’ union. “The government we put in place is the obstacle.
“We are saying no to arbitrary war, no to misery, no to poverty, no to
disappearances, no to summary executions.”
Student leader Herv Santilus said Aristide “wants to establish another
“With Lavalas in power, Haiti cannot move forward,” he said. “We are shaking
the tree so he will fall out. We need to get rid of this venomous demon.”
Duvalier seeks return
Ominously, conditions here have led some to grow nostalgic for the Duvaliers.
Tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of millions of dollars stolen during
the 29-year reign of President-for-Life Franois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son
Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc.”
Jean-Claude Duvalier, exiled in 1986, has said he wants to return.
“There is chaos in Haiti,” he said from his Paris home in December. “There
are no available means to govern the country.”
Ely Merisier said he was “full of hope” when Jean-Claude Duvalier fell, and
again when Aristide came to power.
“Now neither Aristide, nor the opposition, nor the international community
can save us,” the wedding photographer said. “Only God.”