CARICOM leaders hoping for the best

By Mindell Small

Guardian Staff Reporter

The much-anticipated, two-day meeting with the chief opposition party and a large anti-Aristide coalition group in Haiti began 7:00 p.m. yesterday under heavy security at the Wyndham Nassau Resort and Crystal Palace Casino.

The meetings were originally scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, but was delayed due to the late arrival of the opposition party.

CARICOM chairman and Jamaican Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson arrived in the capital Tuesday afternoon and was joined by Prime Minister Perry Christie and the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Patrick Manning for a CARICOM briefing before the intense talks with the opposition groups began. St. Lucia‘s Prime Minister, Kenny Anthony, was unable to attend.

Opposition groups attending

The Opposition groups attending are comprised of the main “Convergence Democratique” party and a coalition organisation “Group of 184,” which use to be made up of 184 but has since grown to 230 small groups of professionals in commerce, industry, education, civic organisations and the Protestant Federation of Churches.

Group of 184 met briefly with the press upon its arrival but did not give much information about its intention, saying that it wanted to express their views during the meeting later.

P. J. Patterson speaks

The Jamaican Prime Minister, who arrived an hour later, said the talks are an indication that CARICOM is working as one family to come up with ways to best resolve the political crisis in Haiti.

He said the Caribbean body is operating within the framework of the Organisation of American States (OAS) but has concluded that it should launch its own initiative, not confined to itself but one that embraces other governments and organisations.

He said it is hoped that at the end of the talks, CARICOM would meet again with Haiti‘s president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his government.

CARICOM’s next intercessional meeting will be held in March in Antigua.

Building trust

“We hope that following the dialogue between both sides, we can contribute to building the bridge of trust and confidence, which we see as essential to the resolution of the problems there,” he said.

“In all we do we have to recognise that the Haitian people themselves have to be willing to engage in a final and effective solution to their problems and whatever we do, we have to respect the sovereignty of Haiti as a nation,” he added.

However, Mr. Patterson stressed that Haiti must also understand that CARICOM has a charter stipulating the mode of conduct of civil societies, which all member states must adhere. He said if both parties in Haiti remain inflexible, adamant and rigid in their positions, then one should not expect the possibility of compromise.

The Jamaican Prime Minister also said CARICOM wants to ensure that the Haitian judiciary is able to effectively perform its duties and security forces are able maintain law and order in a manner that is not oppressive, but has proper regard for the legitimate right of citizens to engage in peaceful and orderly protests.

Mr. Patterson said he is aware that some in Haiti‘s opposition believe that CARICOM is supporting Aristide’s government, but noted that their beliefs were unfounded.

The stance of CARICOM

He said he wanted to make it clear that CARICOM has no such leaning to any government, and deals with governments that are elected, only because the government represents the leading group in a country.

He added that the same principle applies whether it is the government of president Aristide or president Preval, the former leader, or any subsequent leader constitutionally elected by the people of Haiti.

“That however, must not be confused with our obligation or our insistence that whatever the government may be, however led, whatever its political complexion, it must conform with the charter of civil society, which is a condition president for membership in the Caribbean community,” he emphasised.

He then outlined that the welfare of the people within each member state is CARICOM’s ultimate concern and that it believes in democratic pluralism. He reiterated that a country such as Haiti, which does not have a long tradition of democratic rule, must recognise that whatever changes it makes, has to be made in accordance with accepted democratic principles, fully recognising and respecting the rights of opposition groups at all times.

“And that is one of the reasons why we thought it extremely important to meet with the opposition groups as a separate body and to meet with them at the very highest level,” he said.

Haiti is the newest member of CARICOM and the oldest black republic, having gained its independence on Jan. 1, 1804. When asked why he did not attend the 200th anniversary celebrations of that republic, the Jamaican leader said he was in consultations during the Christmas and New Years holidays, but pointed out that the real reason he did not attend was because he thought that, as the CARICOM chairman, spending only one day in Haiti would not have given him the opportunity to meet face-to-face with all of the important groups and therefore run the risk of his intentions being misunderstood.

Additionally, the opposition has expressed anger over the present constitutional condition where president Aristide is ruling by decree following the Jan. 12 expiration of the parliamentary authority.

On that point, Mr. Patterson said CARICOM would like to see the electoral machinery in place, which may require some external assistance that the body would have to be willing to provide in order for free and fair elections to be held, without the taint of violence.

President Aristide’s term does not expire until the end of 2005, and under the Constitution, he is not required to leave office until 2006.

The American delegation at the meeting includes U.S. charge d’affaires to The Bahamas, Mr. Robert Witajewski and representatives from the US diplomatic mission to Haiti. The OAS representative is Mr. Luigi Enauldi, the assistant secretary general of that organisation. Canada is represented by Paul Durand, its Ambassador to the OAS.