Originally: Protests, Violence Dampen Haiti’s Joy

Published December 29, 2003


CITE SOLEIL, Haiti – The charcoal his mother sold down by the wharf put Jean Ronald Registre through school. Later, a charismatic young priest inspired him to enter politics to fight for the poor.

But today Registre, 31, a City Council member in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s most famous slum, can’t set foot in the place he was elected to represent because he fears progovernment gangs. He blames the priest, who later left the church to become the nation’s most powerful politician: President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“He carried the torch and lit our way,” Registre said of his former hero. “Everyone loved him. He was our god. But how deceived we were.”

Registre is one of many ex-disciples of Aristide who bitterly criticize his management of a country it once seemed he was born to lead.

In recent weeks Haiti has been engulfed in political protests over Aristide’s rule, threatening to overshadow celebrations Jan. 1 to mark the country’s 200th anniversary of independence.

Most criticism used to come from the nation’s small political elite. But a broad coalition has now emerged – politicians, university students, human rights activists, intellectuals and businessmen – all calling for his resignation.

Reliable public opinion surveys are hard to find in Haiti, but analysts say Aristide’s support among the country’s 98 percent black population has crumbled in recent years. Nowhere is that more dramatically evident than in the nation’s desperately poor slums, where Aristide’s messianic appeal was once unrivaled.

“Aristide is no longer popular in Cite Soleil,” said Registre, who attended the Salesian Brothers high school, St. Jean Bosco, where Aristide was a young Roman Catholic priest. “He has made too many mistakes.”

This month, as riot police battled small groups of opposition demonstrators in many parts of the city, Aristide’s political party – the Lavalas (Cleansing Flood) Family – celebrated the 13th anniversary of his landslide election victory in 1990. It ended decades of dictatorship and military rule. Aristide was ousted less than a year later by a military coup, only to be restored to power by a U.S.-led invasion in 1994.

Despite losing three years of his presidency, he agreed to honor the end of his term in 1995. He was re-elected in 2000 for another five years.

Many former supporters say Aristide, now 50, is a changed man since he became president. Physically he is still the same slight figure, with an intense look made somewhat unnerving by a sleepy left eyelid. He jokes about his hair loss, which is leaving him bald on top.

Though the political situation might look chaotic, Aristide said at a news conference recently that there was no cause for alarm.

“We are still learning about democracy,” he said.

Rejecting criticism of his government, he placed all the blame on a foreign “embargo,” referring to a cutoff of $500-million in international aid because of a dispute over alleged fraud in the 2000 elections.

He accused foreign donors – principally the United States and France – of breaking their promises to help rebuild the country after the 1994 invasion.

“If you tell the driver to go 150 mph and you take the fuel out of the car, it’s not fair,” Aristide said.

Indeed, Haiti’s economic indicators make grim reading. It’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; 80 percent of its population earns less than $2 a day. Life expectancy has fallen from 55 to 49 years in the last decade.

Asked about his popularity in Cite Soleil, Aristide said he felt it was stronger than ever considering the state of the economy.

“Any president who lacked real popularity would be unable to govern (in Haiti’s conditions),” he said.

Lavalas Family control over the last decade has brought some improvements to living conditions in Cite Soleil, a maze of muddy streets and alleyways that spills into the bay near downtown Port-au-Prince. The entrance to the slum has been paved and a water tower provides regular fresh drinking water, although it is still not piped to homes. The wharf has been improved; a new high school has opened, and a large park is under construction.

Even so, some things haven’t changed. Half-naked children and adults still wash themselves with buckets of water outside lean-to homes made from wood and sheets of metal. Skinny dogs and pigs poke their noses through rotting garbage piled high along dirt streets lined by drainage ditches full of green, fetid water and sewage.

Yet residents say poverty is no longer their biggest complaint; their main fear is the daily violence and insecurity from local gangs, known as chimeres, (a fire-breathing monster in Greek mythology) who owe allegiance to the presidential palace.

Some gang leaders are accused by residents of organized crime, carjackings, kidnappings, rape and murder. A recent turf war involving five Cite Soleil gangs resulted in at least 20 deaths. During the fighting several homes and businesses were burned and the local hospital shut down.

“We are the victims, not the chimeres, not the president,” said a woman whose house was burned, her eyes brimming with tears.

“It’s always us, the normal people, us and our children, who are the victims.”

The gang leaders retain close ties with senior police officers and staff at the presidential palace, according to interviews with two chimere bosses. One said he had been summoned to meet Aristide four times. He said the president urged the gangs to make peace.

But the gang leaders say they frequently receive phone calls from palace staff requesting their support at progovernment demonstrations. Occasionally the gangs also get instructions – and weapons – to attack and beat up opposition targets.

For example, when an opposition “Caravan of Hope” visited Cite Soleil in July, accompanied by foreign diplomats, gang leaders say they were told to ambush the convoy of vehicles and beat up the occupants. Several cars were stoned and burned, and 44 people injured.

But gang members in Cite Soleil say their loyalty to Aristide is fraying.

“They use us, but after a while you know too much. In Lavalas you never know who is going to kill you,” said one Cite Soleil gang leader, who asked not to be identified. “They ask me to do anything to protect the palace. Aristide is us. We are his power,” he added, displaying a police issue Taurus 9mm revolver.

The undermining of chimere loyalty to the palace began with the assassination in mid September of a former pro-Aristide gang leader, Amiot Metayer, 42, in the port city of Gonaives, about 90 miles north of the capital.

The circumstances of Metayer’s death – his eyes were reportedly shot out and his heart removed – are shrouded in mystery.

Throughout the 1990s, Metayer was a fervent left-wing political organizer for Aristide’s Lavalas movement. He headed an armed group in the Gonaives slum of Raboteau, known as the Cannibal Army.

He fell out with the government after he was arrested and convicted for his role in an attack by the chimeres on opposition political parties in December 2001. Metayer’s supporters later broke him out of jail with a bulldozer, and he began speaking out about Aristide’s alleged involvement in political crimes.

After Metayer’s death the Cannibal Army declared itself in open revolt against the government. At least two gang leaders in Cite Soleil also started getting cold feet. The government has responded, analysts say, by using other gangs to crush dissent in Cite Soleil. In an apparent attempt to halt the killing, Aristide met with various gang leaders at his palace in late November. A truce followed.

Government officials deny they are responsible for gang violence, which they attribute to Haiti’s lack of resources. Haiti has only 5,000 police for the entire country of 8-million, officials say, less than one-tenth the number of police in the New York area.

Aristide’s meeting with the gang leaders was simply an attempt to bring peace to Cite Soleil, officials say. However, it remains unclear why the gang leaders were allowed access to the palace when police were officially seeking their arrest.

To be sure, Aristide still has many supporters.

“This is still a Lavalas base,” said Noel Saint Dufait, standing outside City Hall. “We can still put people on the streets to show the bourgeois who is in charge.”

Registre, the young City Council member, says his troubles began when he helped organize a public workshop on nonviolence and disarmament. Soon he began receiving threats, accusing him of betraying Lavalas.

“We speak a different language. They want to have those kids armed and working for them,” Registre said. “The population has learned that the real devil in Cite Soleil is not the chimeres, but Aristide.”

Though the peace agreement is holding firm, the situation is now spiraling out of control in other parts of the country.

In Gonaives, daily skirmishes have turned the streets of Raboteau, a seaside shanty-town of 45,000 residents, into a virtual war zone. As in Cite Soleil, the Cannibal Army was also used in the past by the Lavalas movement to put down opposition demonstrations.

But Metayer’s death has thrown them into an odd alliance with local anti-Aristide groups they previously were sent to repress.

Gonaives is where Haiti declared its independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804, becoming the first black republic. A monument to the victorious general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, dominates the main square where Aristide is due to preside over an official ceremony Thursday.

Fighting has prevented work crews from entering the square, which is only a few blocks from Raboteau, to complete the anniversary preparations. Rubble, smoldering tires and overturned plants lay strewn across the square in mid December.

Aristide is determined not to let the demonstrations interrupt the event, to which a host of heads of state have been invited, mostly from Africa and the Caribbean.

The day after Metayer’s death, heavily armed police reinforcements arrived in town to retake control of Raboteau, witnesses say. A unit of the heavily armed Special Brigade, police irregulars dressed in black T-shirts, patrol in pickups and SUVs.

Local residents accuse the Special Brigades of indiscriminate shootings, as well as the execution of four young men on Dec. 2. In a separate meeting with reporters in a lookout post atop a wharf-side voodoo temple, leaders of the Cannibal Army vowed to disrupt Aristide’s visit.

“If Aristide comes we are ready to die,” said Metayer’s brother, Butheur Metayer. “We are not children. We know what we have to do. We have guns, and bottles and stones, and the people are with us.”

The battle for Gonaives is also being watched closely by opposition groups in the capital. A bloody clash with students at the national university Dec. 5 triggered new calls for the president to resign.

Pro-Aristide thugs broke into the faculty of University of Haiti’s Human Sciences College and fought a pitched battle on the small campus, witnesses said. Police opened fire on students, wounding several. When the university rector, Pierre-Marie Paquiot, tried to intervene, he was set upon and his legs broken with iron bars by the attackers.

Though Aristide later condemned the incident, he suggested that the students were a small minority of malcontents. That only inflamed passions. Students have demonstrated almost every day since.

Meanwhile, progovernment demonstrators retain a stranglehold on streets around the palace, where the president’s hard-core loyalists chant, “Aristide is king.”

Despite the volatile situation in the slums of Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, the government appears to still hold the upper hand. But analysts fear the police and pro-Aristide groups may be driven to ever-greater acts of repression to stay in control.

Defections from Lavalas ranks are growing. This month, three Cabinet ministers also resigned. Registre says he just wants to be able to go back to Cite Soleil with his mother and younger brother.

He has no special plans to celebrate Jan. 1 other than helping his mother prepare pumpkin soup, a Haitian New Year’s Day tradition.

“What is there to celebrate? We have no water, no electricity, and we can’t afford to send our kids to school. All Aristide brought us is violence and more hunger.”

– David Adams may be contacted at dadams7308@aol.com