As Haiti approaches the 200th anniversary of its independence in January, there are few signs that it will emerge from a protracted political crisis. The government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide continues at odds with its domestic opponents and faces growing discontent, even among groups that have until now supported the regime. This, combined with the ongoing suspension of desperately needed international aid, points to difficult days ahead for the world?s first black republic.

Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, has for decades suffered from political unrest, weak institutions and abysmal social conditions affecting most of its population of 8m. But the situation has worsened in the last few years, largely because of the political stalemate.

Elected for a five-year term in December 2000 following legislative elections in May of that year that opposition parties and foreign observers say were flawed, Mr Aristide has been locked in a standoff with his opponents for more than three years. The two sides have repeatedly failed to come to agreement over when, and under what conditions, to conduct new legislative elections. The opposition coalition, Convergence Democratique, has been particularly intransigent, regularly demanding that Mr Aristide resign. This has stalled international financial aid as well as contributed to a breakdown in law and order and an increase in misery in the country.

Gang warfare?

Of particular concern is the president?s courting of criminal-political street gangs to help defend his government and quell domestic opposition. Mr Aristide worries about an ever-present threat of overthrow, a feature of Haiti?s recent history. (He was ousted by the military in a violent coup in 1991 during his first stint as head of state, and was brought back to power in 1994 thanks to a US military intervention.) But Mr Aristide now faces the thorny problem of how to distance himself from the gangs in order to improve public security and regain international assistance.

In September, Amiot Metayer, the leader of a pro-Aristide street gang called the Cannibal Army from the provincial city of Gonaives, was found dead along the roadside near that town, a bullet in each eye. His supporters have virtually paralysed that region, accusing Mr Aristide of having orchestrated the murder of Mr Metayer in order to rid himself of a troublesome ally who knew too much. This month, the murder of another gang leader with links to the government, this time in the capital?s sprawling Cite Soleil slum, resulted in similar riots and calls for the president?s ouster by the same armed partisans who once defended him.

The government has always denied links to the gangs, claiming that they were simply supporters acting out of “patriotism”. However, by the summer of 2002, when thugs were used to help brutally stamp out a growing protest movement by university students, the links between the government and the gangs had become embarrassingly obvious. Some observers have even seen gang leaders regularly leave Haiti?s National Palace and Ministry of the Interior, even to take orders from officials of Haiti?s National Police (PNH) during recent anti-government street demonstrations. The PNH, for its part, has actively suppressed anti-government dissent while failing to halt actions by armed government loyalists.

Government officials have accused Convergence Democratique of being behind some of the violence in order to discredit the administration and frustrate the possibility of holding new legislative elections. The most recent anti-Aristide protests occurred during the week of November 17th, with a one-day general strike followed by intermittent clashes between pro-government and opposition factions. Authorities also claim that the opposition is fuelling unrest in the Plateau Central region, where for the last year groups of armed men claiming to be members of Haiti’s disbanded military, allegedly led by a former major, have killed government officials and policeman and vowed to topple Mr Aristide.

No solid institutions

Haiti?s weak state institutions, which are arguably at the service of the executive branch, have been unable to address the deteriorating situation. The judiciary branch, for instance, is inefficient, plagued by corrupt and lacks independence. It has made little headway into investigating political crimes of any ilk.

“There is no armed forces, there is no justice structure, the state is as weak as can be,” says one former member of Haiti?s security establishment, forced to flee into exile, he says, when he began engaging in counter-narcotics operations that led towards the circles of government power. Some independent journalists have also been intimidated. Early this year the country?s most prominent journalist, Michele Montas, was forced into exile following the murder of her bodyguard. Ms Montas, the widow of renowned radio commentator Jean Dominique, who himself was murdered in front of Radio Haiti Inter, the radio station they co-owned in April 2000, had long been a thorn in the side of the Aristide government. She had pressed for an aggressive investigation into her husband?s murder and criticised the use of armed pressure groups in domestic politics. Since Mr Aristide?s return to power in February 2001, human-rights groups say, 31 journalists in addition to Ms Montas have fled the country.

International concerns

The Aristide government?s approach to addressing international concerns has been, in part, cosmetic. According to US Department of Justice figures, between 2000 and 2002 the Haitian government paid US$2.5m for the services of two prominent lobbying firms in the US to plead its case in Washington and to improve its image. The government has also participated in multiple rounds of negotiations with foreign mediators, notably the Organisation of American States (OAS), to resolve the electoral crisis. However, it has yet to meet all of the concrete mandates the OAS set as preconditions for new and credible elections.

A full resumption of foreign-aid flows is unlikely soon. The Inter-American Development Bank announced this November the approval of three loans to Haiti totalling US$176.9m (the first since the IDB began lending to the country again in July). However, the credits sidestep direct contact with the Aristide government, instead going to autonomous and semi-autonomous state agencies and community groups. Foreign donor governments and diplomatic missions, especially the US, have remained largely unmoved.

In the present climate of hostility and poor security, a political solution to Haiti?s crisis remains as distant as ever. As a result, foreign assistance will be withheld, investment will be low and the economic situation will remain dire. Having stagnated in 2000-03 the Haitian economy could begin to improve in 2004-05. However, the modest growth expected will imply only a slight increase in gross domestic product per head — enough to prevent a sudden humanitarian catastrophe but insufficient to bring about any significant improvement in living standards.

Mr Aristide?s personal political future is difficult to predict. Despite its influence on international public opinion, the opposition is likely to remain disorganised and lacking in domestic support. Mr Aristide?s own robust personal security apparatus and access to government funds and other resources should also insulate him from any threats. However, the next presidential elections, scheduled for November 2005 (the constitution prohibits him from running again), are still a long way off. The main risk, in the meantime, is that the country becomes increasingly violent and, hence, ungovernable.