Foreign Mediation Efforts in Haiti Crisis Hit a Wall
By Michael Christie
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – Efforts by U.S.-led foreign mediators to try to end an armed revolt in Haiti hit a wall on Saturday when embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide agreed to a peace plan but his political opponents were reluctant to accept it.
The officials from the United States, Canada, France and Caribbean nations ended their day-long talks without yet being able to get Aristide’s political foes to sign on to a deal that would demand political reforms from the Haitian president but keep him in office.
“While we did not get a yes, we did not get a no, and they (the opposition) have agreed to revert to us with an answer by the close of business on Monday,” Bahamas Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell told reporters.
The foreign delegation was in Port-au-Prince on an urgent mission to try to broker a solution to the bloody turmoil that has capped months of political tension in the poorest country in the Americas.
The revolt, which erupted in the western city of Gonaives on Feb. 5 and has spread over northwest and central Haiti, has killed more than 50 people, sent foreigners fleeing and posed the most serious threat to Aristide since he was ousted in a coup shortly after his first term began in 1991.
Aristide, who has insisted he will serve out his second term to 2006, agreed to the plan the delegation presented, which involves setting up a broad-based advisory council to appoint a new prime minister and Cabinet, as well as reforming the corrupt and undertrained police force and disarming gangs.
But talks later with opposition parties dragged on far longer than expected as mediators tried to get them to accept the deal. At least some of Aristide’s opponents insisted no agreement was possible unless the president stepped down.
“If we accept this plan without the departure of Aristide we are going to disappear as an opposition.” Rosemond Pradel, head of one of the opposition parties, told reporters as the talks continued. “We cannot accept co-existence with Mr. Aristide. It is not acceptable.”
ENOUGH FOR THE REBELS?
Even if the political opposition did accept the plan — a version of one agreed to previously by Aristide but rejected by the opposition — it is far from clear that would be enough to halt the armed rebels, who are intent on ousting Aristide.
Aristide, a former parish priest, was once seen as a champion of democracy in Haiti after decades of dictatorships but is now accused of autocratic and thuggish politics.
Months of street protests, frequently attacked by armed Aristide loyalists, erupted into full revolt when an armed gang that once supported Aristide kicked police out of Gonaives. The rebels have been joined by former soldiers from the disbanded army and a leader of a death squad that terrorized the country during a 1990s military dictatorship.
Several governments have advised their citizens to leave and the United States ordered some of its embassy staff to leave Haiti on Saturday.
“It is unsafe to remain in Haiti in view of the deteriorating security situation,” the State Department said in a statement, ordering family members and nonessential personnel at the embassy in Port-au-Prince to leave.
Aristide had agreed to the same plan at talks with Caribbean Community, or Caricom, nations last month. But the opposition, in rejecting the deal, said they doubted Aristide would implement the reforms and insisted he resign.
The opposition is led by business leaders, politicians and civil activists dismissed by Aristide as a wealthy mulatto elite virulently opposed to Haiti being run by its poor, black majority.
The U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, the Canadians by the minister responsible for French-speaking countries and the French — Haiti‘s colonial masters 200 years ago — by their ambassador in Port-au-Prince.