Haiti‘s Aristide Agrees to Meet Opposition
Sun January 25, 2004 07:42 PM ET

By Amy Bracken

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – Responding to peace-making efforts from Caribbean leaders, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sunday agreed to meet with Haiti‘s opposition to try to ease an increasingly violent standoff.

But it was unclear whether his foes — a disparate coalition of businessmen, church and civic groups, political opponents and students — would also agree to the meeting being brokered by the Caribbean Community regional bloc.

The potential encounter in Kingston, Jamaica, would take place “some time in the very near future,” said Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie, representing CARICOM.

Christie was in Haiti for talks with Aristide after the Caribbean group met the president’s opponents in the Bahamas to try and halt the further descent of the poorest nation of the Americas into confrontation and bloodshed.

Aristide, who recently called for new elections within six months, said at a news conference on Sunday that he accepted CARICOM’s invitation to the talks in Jamaica.

“I will be with you in Kingston, Jamaica, (where I hope) all of my brothers and sisters of the opposition, civil society and Lavalas (ruling party) will work toward a solution because that solution is indispensable to the future of Haiti,” he said.

Dozens have died in clashes between protesters who have been taking to the streets in increasing numbers and armed Aristide supporters. Both sides blame each other for the violence, but most attacks appear to be carried out by backers of the president.

A former Roman Catholic priest, Aristide became Haiti‘s first democratically elected leader. A coup, U.S. invasion and re-election later, his popularity has waned amid allegations of corruption and political thuggery.

The crux of the standoff with the opposition is a disputed parliamentary election in 2000, the year of Aristide’s re-election. The impasse has prevented a new ballot from taking place and the terms of most Haitian legislators expired this month, immobilizing parliament.

The opposition, which has rejected Aristide’s call for new elections because it said conditions did not exist for a free and fair vote, did not immediately respond to the talks proposal.

At the meeting last week with opposition leaders in the Bahamas, CARICOM presented a proposal in which it called on the Haitian government to disarm gangs and allow free and safe demonstrations.

Members of the opposition broadly mistrust the Caribbean group, but many came away from the Bahamas meeting feeling that it had become an ally.