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.”

Flawed elections

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


Political murders

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.”