Originally: Destitute Haiti Teeters Toward Chaos

December 29, 2003

Massive protests and bloody clashes are churning Haiti toward chaos as the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest republic marks its bicentennial on Thursday.While preparations for the official celebrations continue, thousands have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The former slum priest, once broadly hailed as the long-hoped for savior of this troubled Caribbean nation, now is seen by many as merely the latest in a bitter succession of dictators to rule the impoverished population.

”I’m tired of the misery,” 20-year-old Pierre Donique said Friday at a demonstration in Port-au-Prince, the capital. ”When Aristide goes I don’t know what will happen, but it has to be better then this.”

Dozens have been killed and scores wounded since September in escalating clashes between protesters and government supporters that have spread beyond Port-au-Prince to the provincial cities of Cap-Haitien, Gonaives and Jacmel. As the sides harden, hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid remain frozen, deepening hunger and poverty in the hemisphere’s least developed nation.

Two hundred years after becoming the second colony in the Americas to declare its independence, and the first black republic in the world, Haiti is teetering toward anarchy.”It’s a very dangerous moment,” said Robert Fatton Jr., chairman of the politics department at the University of Virginia. ”I think we are in for a long period of instability and uncertainty.”

For the millions of poor, struggling to survive on a dollar a day, Haiti today offers a sun-scorched landscape of denuded mountain slopes and sprawling shantytowns, rank open sewers and spreading public dumps. Masses live without water or electricity in tin-roofed wooden shacks of cement-block cells.

The current crisis stems from the disputed parliamentary elections of 2000. Aristide’s Lavalas Family party swept the polls, but opposition members and international observers say some of the races should have gone to a second round of voting. Ten years after sending military forces to restore Aristide to power, the United States and other international donors have suspended about $500 million in aid, a sum roughly equivalent to Haiti’s annual national budget.

Aristide says he has tried to hold new elections, but an opposition that would be unlikely to win at the polls has refused to cooperate in order to undermine his government. Opponents say Aristide has failed to guarantee the security necessary to hold fair elections.

As the stalemate grinds on, the population of 8 million is slipping deeper into despair. Unemployment hovers around 70 percent; the vast majority of people scrape by on a dollar a day. Nearly half the population suffers from hunger, and infection rates of HIV and AIDS are the highest outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

It hardly seems the victory that Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines envisioned on Jan. 1, 1804, when after more than a decade of bloody rebellion he declared Haiti’s independence from France. ”Citizens, it is not enough to have expelled from your country the barbarians who have bloodied it for two centuries,” the former slave said. ”We must at last live independent or die.”

Going into the bicentennial, Aristide has cast Haiti’s current woes as a continuation of its struggle against a conspiracy of rich nations against poor that dates back to colonial Saint-Domingue. ”Poverty today is the result of a 200-year-old plot,” he told thousands during a speech last month to mark the anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Vertieres. ”Whether it be slavery or embargo, it’s the same plot. You are victims. I am a victim.”

In that spirit, Aristide has directed his government to prepare a $21.7-billion claim against France, a repayment of the 90-million-franc ransom that Paris demanded of its breakaway colony in exchange for diplomatic recognition, trade relations and a promise not to reinvade. The sum, which the fledgling nation borrowed from French banks at exorbitant interest rates, crippled development for decades.

The claim, celebrated in song on state radio, has found some support. ”We’re still suffering here because of slavery and the trouble the French gave us after we kicked them out,” 25-year-old Kilmen George said after the Vertieres speech.  ”Aristide’s the only one brave enough to do something about it.”

But critics say Aristide is trying to divert attention from his own failings. His government is accused of trafficking in drugs and paying armed thugs to stifle dissent, as during demonstrations this month outside the National Palace and at Haiti State University. In Gonaives last week, government supporters allegedly opened fire on protesters, killing eight.

”Aristide wants to use the restitution issue to turn France into a scapegoat for his own ineptitude and corruption,” the sociologist Laennec Hurbon said.

The opposition has broadened beyond the elite of the Democratic Convergence coalition and the so-called Group of 184 civil-society institutions to the students of Haiti State University and several former political allies. Key defectors in recent weeks include three cabinet ministers, two Lavalas senators and the ambassador to the neighboring Dominican Republic. The movement now ranges across traditional lines of color and class, and from peaceful protesters to armed thugs. But it is unclear whether they have the organization and support to present a viable alternative to Aristide.

”I think there is utter cynicism on the part of the vast majority of Haitians,” Fatton said. ”They thought that Aristide was the savior, but he’s not. But they are not prepared to join the opposition, because I think they look at the opposition as also irrelevant to their particular desires and needs,” Fatton added. ”What is clear is that Aristide is facing the most serious crisis and challenge that he’s ever faced since he’s come back to power.”

Letta Taylor of Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this report, which was supplemented by wire services.