Aristide firm on completing term, but yields to Caricom demands

 Haiti‘s embattled leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide remained adamant last night that he would serve out the remaining two years of his presidential term, but acquiesced to a raft of demands from Caribbean Community countries to ease the political crisis in his country and avoid sanctions from his Caricom partners.

Among Aristide’s undertakings, at a meeting in Kingston yesterday, was to move immediately to release people arbitrarily detained during weeks of anti-government demonstrations in Haiti and to begin the process of establishing a broad-based interim government ahead of the reform of the electoral system and the election of a new legislative assembly.

Aristide, under the Haitian constitution, has been ruling by decree, following the recent expiry of terms of two-thirds of the country’s Senate and has said that new elections will be held within six months.

But last night, the Jamaican prime minister, P J Patterson, speaking in his capacity as chairman of Caricom, disclosed that Aristide has agreed to the establishment of “a broad-based advisory council comprised of mutually (acceptable) and independent persons who enjoy public trust” to help in decision-making.

But perhaps more important was Aristide’s acceptance of a proposal that emerged in Port-au-Prince and supported by Caricom, that Aristide, after wide national consultations, including with the opposition and civil society groups, appoint a prime minister who can enjoy “public trust”.
A similar process would be used to select a cabinet.
“That would be a clear indication of the president’s willingness to accept a national government,” Patterson told reporters.

Patterson and his St Lucian and Trinidadian and Bahamian counterparts – Dr Kenny Anthony, Patrick Manning and Perry Christie respectively – met Aristide for several hours yesterday in the third phase of an initiative by the I4-member economic and political group to help bring stability to the hemisphere’s poorest country that joined their club in I997. They had earlier met in The Bahamas with opposition leaders after Caricom had sent a fact-finding mission to Haiti.

Haiti has been rocked by instability since black slaves 200 years ago defeated planters, and later Napoleon’s armies, to create the world’s first black republic.
But its latest round of crisis began in 2000 when there were complaints that legislative elections were flawed and the opposition failed to recognise the administration even after the holders of disputed seats resigned.

The opposition the same year also disputed the election of Aristide, although independent observers held that his victory represented the will of the majority of Haitians. Aristide is a former Roman Catholic priest, whose I990s agitation helped to bring down the previous dictatorship and fuelled his own election as president. He was deposed by the Haitian army but reinstated by a US military intervention after years in exile.
But the Haitian opposition has mounted a series of demonstrations since last year, pressing not only for political reforms but insisting that Aristide must go too.

Last night, Aristide suggested that he was sincere in agreeing to the measures.
“The best way to say thank you is to implement the measures and we are committed to that,” he told the Caricom leaders at last night’s media briefing.

But he made it clear that an early personal departure from the presidency was not on the agenda, as had earlier been indicated by Patterson.
“I will leave office on
February 7, 2006,” he said.
There have been suggestions in
Haiti that Aristide’s wife would seek to succeed him, but he rejected this.

“The first lady of Haiti will not be a presidential candidate,” he said.
Apart from the big political issues, such as the creation of the advisory council and the formation of the national government, Aristide agreed to a series of other confidence-building measures, most of which Patterson said should be in place within the next four to six weeks.

For instance, restrictive rules for public demonstrations have been rescinded and new ones are to be drafted with the help of a permanent OAS mission in Haiti and from Caricom. These rules will be transparent and will apply to pro-government and anti-government demonstrations.

Additionally, it was agreed that all persons now in detention but not “judicially qualified” will be released, and Aristide undertook to ensure that persons arrested during demonstrations be processed within 48 hours. People claiming to have been arrested because they were opposition political activists will be similarly allowed due process.
Under the agreement, armed gangs will be disarmed and seized weapons will be accounted for and publicly destroyed. A plan for the disarming of such gangs will be published by March I5, Patterson said.

Asked what will cause him to keep his word, Aristide told reporters: “When people had concerns about my commitment to convince seven Haitian senators to resign (after the disputed elections), I worked hard and it happened. Members of Family Lavalas (Aristide’s party) also resigned. I kept my word.
“Sometimes when we don’t have the same goodwill on both sides it makes it more difficult. This time, I do believe my brothers from the opposition and myself, as sons and daughters of the same country, will work hard to make the difference.”

Patterson also indicated that Caricom will closely monitor events in Haiti, including maintaining dialogue with the opposition.
For instance, a Caricom mission, led by Caricom’s assistant secretary-general, Colin Granderson, will visit
Haiti next week.
“We are pledged to have a further meeting with the opposition,” Patterson said.