13 February 2004

Josue Vaval pointed to the large hole in the wall of the social science faculty at the University of Haiti where armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had burst through a couple of months ago, opened fire on demonstrating students, smashed their way through faculty offices and broke both the dean’s knees with clubs.

Through the barred, broken windows of the campus buildings – the doors have been padlocked – overturned furniture can be seen among broken computers and student files left burnt or ripped to shreds on the floor. Outside, vandalised faculty vehicles, their windscreens smashed and their interiors torched, stand as forlorn monuments to the violence of 5 December.

Every day since then, several dozen hard-core student activists have congregated on campus and plotted what they say is the only hope for Haiti’s future: the overthrow of Mr Aristide and his Lavalas party, most commonly referred to asle pouvoir.

Mr Vaval, a psychology student who, with classes suspended indefinitely, is now working full-time against the government, said: “This is the crucible of the resistance. The government is corrupt and unsustainable, and the country has arrived at a point of enormous frustration. Freedom and human rights no longer exist. How can breaking the dean’s knees be acceptable in a democratic society?”

Students like Mr Vaval dream of a mass movement of civil disobedience, free of the violence that has killed more than 40 people in clashes between rebels and pro-government forces in the north of the country for the past week. But that dream is fast disintegrating, as any semblance of democratic dialogue gives way to the lure of weapons, demagoguery and naked ambition in one of the world’s poorest corners.

The town of Gonaives – crucial because it is the gateway for traffic moving between the north and the south of the country – is in rebel hands, and fighting is raging in the port of St Marc, 65 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the capital.

At least two more people were shot dead in St Marc overnight. Reports from Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien suggested that pro-Aristide forces were waging a successful campaign of intimidation against their adversaries, burning as many as five houses or businesses a day and issuing specific threats to families that they want to see leave. Port-au-Prince remained relatively calm, but the tension is palpable. Yesterday, for the second time in five days, the opposition attempted to organise a mass protest to demand Mr Aristide’s removal.

And, for the second time in five days, they were greeted with makeshift barricades set up in the early hours of the morning, burning tyres and an ugly gang of a few hundred chimeres – muscular young Aristide supporters – many of them from the slums, who patrolled the Place du Canape Vert, spitting invective at reporters and accusing the international press of spreading lies about their country. Many of the young men wore masks, and at least one brandished a baseball bat.

Shortly after the scheduled 9am start time of the protest, a suspected opposition sympathiser was chased up a street and beaten. Minutes later, an unmarked van stuffed with men brandishing automatic weapons sped by, followed by an equally well-equipped police van. Within an hour, opposition leaders had called off the march.

The chimeres said that they were there to defend a nearby police station. They equated the opposition with terrorists, calling them Arabs and accusing them – somewhat incoherently – of being part of a Western plot to turn Haiti into a launch pad for groups such as al-Qa’ida. “Down with terrorism, down with terrorism,” they chanted in spontaneous small groups.

It remains to be seen what the opposition’s next move will be. The tide of anti-Aristide sentiment is unmistakable; the result of years of inaction on Haiti’s disastrous economy, compounded by multiple signs of corruption and personal enrichment, and a loss of faith by the international community.

But so is the bedrock of support the President enjoys from Haiti’s urban poor, whose leaders are armed and financed by him and enjoy almost unrestricted access to the presidential palace. The showdown between the two sides may be hard to stop, but it is harder still to imagine a positive outcome if the current clashes escalate into a full-scale civil war.

The opposition is weak and divided, unsure whether to embrace the armed insurrection in Gonaives (started by former Aristide supporters who feel betrayed by him) or to hope, like the students, that they can galvanise a non-violent mass movement. Neither path seems especially promising, though there is certainly no lack of trying.

High school students in Port-au-Prince are beginning to join the university activists and consider their own boycott of classes. In Petit Goave, in the south of Haiti, such a boycott is under way. And in Jacmel, a normally peaceful resort town on the south coast, high school students decided to stay at home after a pro-Aristide local official opened fire on an anti-government demonstration, wounding an unknown number of teenagers and their supporters, according to radio news reports.

These are the people the government is now depicting as terrorists, along with the armed insurgents. In a news conference called largely for the benefit of the foreign press, President Aristide contrasted what he described as the peaceful, democracy-loving majority of Haitians with the thugs and terrorists that he equated with the political opposition. He said: “On 11 September we saw how the terrorists acted. We reject that.”

A different story is told by the people like Mr Vaval, who said he and his fellow protesters lived in a climate of stifling intimidation. He estimated that about half of the 15,000 social science student body was living “in hiding” for fear of government reprisals. He – alongside 10 or 12 of the most active protest organisers – sleeps in a different house every night, and has developed a series of ploys to evade detection on his way in and out of the campus.

Sometimes he hops over walls to and from side streets. Sometimes he deliberately changes his clothes, or puts on a hat, or arranges for a taxi to drive him through the campus’s tall metal gate, painted green and daubed with anti-Aristide graffiti.

The international community is growing more nervous by the day. Unicef abandoned a mission in the north of the country earlier this week, and the US Peace Corps is talking about repatriating its volunteers. The US government seems reluctant to come down either for or against Mr Aristide, worrying principally about maintaining stability and warding off the nightmare of a mass exodus of Haitian boat people to Florida.

Many of Mr Aristide’s former supporters feel saddened at the missed opportunities of recent years, and have little cause for hope whether or not the diminutive former priest stays or goes. Mr Vaval noted ruefully: “I was such a staunch supporter of Aristide’s in the beginning. I thought at least he would guarantee a hot meal to all Haitians. But then I realised I was mistaken … His campaign slogans back in 1990 were ‘Justice, Transparency and Participation’. Well, we have no more justice, no more transparency, and participation in his movement is down to zero.”