Caribbean Leaders Try to Crack Impasse

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 20 (IPS) – Caribbean leaders will try their hand where others have failed when they sit down with Haitian opposition leaders in Bahamas this week, but observers here remain very sceptical of any positive outcome.

The two-day meeting that starts Tuesday in Nassau could be seen as Washington?s attempt to ?out-source? one of its diplomatic headaches.

Last month, U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly asked Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning to tackle a three-year political impasse that has evolved into a full-blown crisis on Washington?s doorstep.

At its centre is Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, restored to power in 1994 by 21,000 U.S. troops and one billion U.S. dollars in what some see as a failed ?nation-building? effort.

In recent years Washington has backed away and turned off its aid spigots, while the economy faltered and political actors squabbled for power.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) stepped in, brokered years of negotiations, but has mostly come up empty-handed. So now it is the turn of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The Nassau meeting, where Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and high-ranking U.S. officials are expected as observers, comes as often-violent demonstrations spread from Haiti?s capital to its rural cities.

If life is relatively the same in much of this impoverished country, where perhaps one-half of the population farms tiny plots much as their ancestors did and one-fourth goes hungry, Haiti is unquestionably on edge.

Protests, tear gas and automatic gunfire rock the capital almost daily. Radio stations have been burned to the ground, hundreds of prisoners have escaped from two jails and radio transmitters have been smashed, knocking more than a dozen stations off the air.

The barricades, marches and violent confrontations are relayed by the growing throng of foreign cameras and reporters who compete for the best position and the first transmission.

The news flashes are not a complete misrepresentation. Each week the numbers of injured and dead rise.

Close to 50 people have perished in political violence in the past four months. Most are protesters or bystanders, shot by police or by the sometimes-armed thugs — some of them young boys — who claim to work on Aristide?s behalf and operate with impunity.

Amnesty International wrote the president this week that it is ?imperative? his government and police ?no longer tolerate such abuses?.

A few people have also been killed by armed opposition zealots.

Opposition anger over flawed parliamentary elections in 2000, swept by Aristide?s Lavalas Family Party, led to a boycott of presidential races later that year, which Aristide won. Since then, international donors and lenders have unsuccessfully pressed the two sides to come to the table and work out a compromise.

Last week, parliament closed and local officials? terms ended, leaving Aristide and his cabinet ruling single-handed.

In recent weeks, thousands and sometimes tens of thousands have taken to the streets to demand Aristide resign before his term ends in 2006, saying that is the only way out of the crisis.

The government has responded that the opposition is afraid of elections and is fomenting a coup d?état. The opposition countered with a declaration calling Aristide and his government ?illegal?, and in protests its members claim officials sacrifice babies in Vodou ceremonies.

Washington, the European Union (EU) and others continue to press for elections. At the Americas Summit in Mexico last week, Aristide promised polling by the end of July.

The past three years have seen plenty of negotiation efforts : over two dozen OAS delegations, meetings hosted by ambassadors and the Papal Nuncio, and the establishment of the OAS ?special mission to strengthen democracy?, with a six-million-dollar plus budget.

Haiti?s Catholic Church hierarchy also took a stab with a compromise plan last fall that Washington endorsed. But this week the bishops retracted it, saying the constant violations of human rights makes the plan outdated.

?We sincerely think that it is now time for each actor to take a personal, courageous and patriotic decision so the country avoids an irreparable catastrophe,? they said in a statement Tuesday.

While they did not elaborate, many priests and several bishops have called on Aristide to resign in recent weeks.

Now Manning and other CARICOM leaders have entered the fray.

Last week Trinidad Foreign Minister Knowlson Gift said Bush told Aristide the CARICOM initiative ?is about your last chance?, the ?Trinidad Express? newspaper reported.

But what was originally announced as a meeting between Aristide and his foes has morphed into a one-sided briefing.

?We are not going for negotiations,? confirmed Charles Baker, a factory owner and a coordinator of the Democratic Platform of Civil Society and Opposition Political Parties.

?We are going to give them our version of things and why we won?t negotiate with Jean-Bertrand Aristide,? he added in an interview Monday.

Baker said platform members — four political party leaders as well as representatives from the church, unions and business groups — will sit down with Manning and others to explain why ?elections are impossible under Aristide?.

While the president has not said much about the CARICOM effort, at a Jan. 17 press conference he once again rejected any notion of leaving office early, noting that repeated coup d?états have taken their toll in Africa.

?Once we have a coup d?état, then we have death. Once we say ?no? to coups d?état, then we say ?yes? to life,? he said, repeating his pledge to hold elections within six months.

?Dialogue, compromise, elections, that?s what we need,? Aristide said.

But for many, the moment for dialogue, compromise and elections is long gone.

?Even before the situation got this bad, we said it would not be possible to hold elections,? noted Eliphaite St. Pierre, general secretary of the Haitian Platform of Human Rights Organisations.

?Now things have really gone too far.?

The platform is one of several rights groups that were supposed to appoint one of the nine delegates for a ?compromise electoral council?, which was to oversee parliamentary and local races in 2003.

?The deadline for choosing was in November,? St. Pierre remembered in an interview. ?2002?.

Months ago, the rights groups, churches and business associations announced they would not allow their designates to serve unless police abuses were curbed, pro-government gangs disarmed and the police hierarchy cleaned out of alleged Aristide cronies.

Instead, the corps has become more corrupt and ?completely vassalised? to the executive, St. Pierre said.

?Consensus or compromise will be very difficult now,? he added. ?Groups that before were willing to talk about elections are now calling for Aristide?s resignation.?

As for the talks in Nassau, ?I don?t think they will change much,? St. Pierre said.

  Jane Regan




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