PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti · President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, running a country with no parliament, a faltering economy, shuttered schools and almost daily violent street clashes, was host to a delegation of leaders from the Caribbean Community in hopes of negotiating an end to the country’s festering crisis.

Led by Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie, the group is proposing the Haitian leader disarm violent street gangs that have clashed with opposition groups for four months, leaving about 50 people dead.

We have a responsibility as a government to disarm, the legal way, all those who have illegal weapons,” Aristide said following closed-door meetings with the delegation. The Caricom leaders left Aristide with an invitation for further talks with Haiti‘s opposition groups in Jamaica at a later date.

“We will take steps beginning shortly with our meeting in
Jamaica, which we hope will be attended by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and representatives of the Lavalas Party, where we hope to go forward precisely and pacifically to discuss the issues with the opposition and civil society,” Christie said.

Over the past year, a four-year stand-off between Aristide’s government and opposition political parties over contested parliamentary races in 2000 has degenerated into a full-fledged national movement as the economy worsened and human rights abuses have risen.

Aristide is calling for elections to resolve the crisis while the opposition, citing security and corruption concerns, claims elections are impossible with Aristide in office. So far, the
United States, European Union and Caribbean Community have kept to the elections-as-solution formula, but with continuing violence there are concerns about whether elections can take place safely and peacefully.

50 dead, 100 injured

Unrest and protests in the capital and a number of provincial cities have left almost 50 dead and more than 100 injured in the past four months. Most are victims of police brutality or attacks by bands of armed pro-government thugs, some of them boys. Opposition zealots have also killed or injured smaller numbers.

For the past three years the Organization of American States, Haiti’s Catholic bishops, the Papal Nuncio and others have had meetings, brokered negotiations and set up special commissions, but so far all parties have come up empty-handed, and the problems in this country of 8 million continue.

OAS deadlines have passed, and the body’s resolutions calling for the government to take specific steps aimed at improving security or curbing rights abuses have been in large part ignored. A “consensus” electoral council that was to begin planning polling sites on Nov. 4, 2002, failed to get off the ground when opposition parties, churches and rights groups refused to designate representatives, saying the security environment had to be improved first.

In the meantime, almost all parliamentary terms expired on Jan. 12, leaving the country under the control of Aristide and his Cabinet. The
Bahamas‘ Christie and the 15-nation Caribbean Community hope to succeed where others have failed. Haiti is

Caricom’s newest, most populous and poorest member. The community wants to make sure Haiti‘s problems come to an end.

Last week in
Nassau, Bahamas, Christie and two other Caricom prime ministers, Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago and Caricom Chairman P.J. Patterson of Jamaica, conducted talks with Haitian opposition leaders. Fourteen representatives of business, political and professional organizations spent two days explaining why they thought elections were not now possible in Haiti.

“We told the three prime ministers that we did not come to the
Bahamas to negotiate,” said Victor Benoit, chairman of the Konakom political party and a member of the delegation.

`Council of wise men’

Instead, the group presented a plan that calls for Aristide’s resignation and for a “council of wise men” to run the country and oversee eventual elections. They also vowed to continue protests until Aristide leaves office.

While Caricom representatives said they oppose “coups d’état” they do have proposals for both sides to consider.

The body wants the government to disarm pro-government thugs, reign in police, assure protection of civil liberties and establish security conditions that would allow for elections this year.
Caribbean newspapers have said Caricom is calling for opposition parties to help pick a consensus prime minister and that Caribbean nations would participate in a “peacekeeping force.”

Many of the Caricom proposals are the exactly the same as those listed in OAS resolutions from more than a year ago.

“Caricom is extremely concerned with the deteriorating situation in
Haiti,” Assistant Secretary General Colin Granderson said last week. “It could spin out of control.”

No intervention plans

Still, Granderson stressed, the Caribbean Community is not planning an intervention, brokering negotiations or providing what some media reports call a “plan.”

Instead, the body is “putting forward a number of ideas” in the hopes of “finding a way forward,” he said.

On Friday, government spokesmen and Cabinet members said they had no reaction to the proposals outlined in the media, saying Aristide would respond after meeting with Christie.

University of Virginia Professor Robert Fatton, who is of Haitian origin, said he agrees that the spiral of demonstrations and violent repression “could turn into utter chaos.”

Fatton thinks that fair elections are impossible at the moment, but he is also concerned with the opposition’s focus on forcing Aristide from power. In 200 years,
Haiti has had more than 50 changes of government, most of them violent.

“That’s a pattern we’ve had forever, and it’s not clear we can escape from it,” said Fatton, head of the university’s political science department and author of
Haiti‘s Predatory Republic.

Aristide probably will not agree to leave before his term ends in 2006, he said, but because of the growing protests at home and rising criticism abroad, “he’s probably ready to make a deal.”