The Orlando Sentinel

(KRT) – The machine-gun-toting rebels who have ignited the violent uprising in northern Haiti are only the latest force to stake a

claim to the perennially volatile Caribbean nation.

From the civil war that split the newly independent republic 200 years ago to the armed insurrection against President

Jean-Bertrand Aristide now, the country of 7.5 million has known little peace and less prosperity. In its bicentennial year, Haiti

looks back on two centuries of unrelenting poverty and oppression punctuated by more than 30 coups.

In Gonaives on Friday, rebels holding Haiti’s fourth-largest city massed in preparation for an expected onslaught by the police. In

Port-au-Prince, protesters who were prevented from demonstrating in the past week by rock-wielding government supporters

vowed to try again Sunday.

“We won’t back down,” said Evans Paul, a former Aristide ally.

In Washington, the United States, the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States issued a joint statement

Friday condemning the violence, urging all sides to respect the law and pledging renewed international support.

“We condemn such violence and call on the government of Haiti to respect the rights, especially the human rights, of all citizens

and residents of Haiti,” the statement read. “We call specifically on the political opposition and civil society to act responsibly,

refrain from violence and fulfill their responsibilities and engage in the democratic process …

“As the government moves forward on these measures, the international community will undertake renewed efforts to restore the

rule of law, including professionalization of the Haitian National Police.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after meeting with foreign diplomats, said: “We all have a commitment to the democratic

process in Haiti, and we will accept no outcome that is not consistent with the constitution. We will accept no outcome that, in any

way, illegally attempts to remove the elected president of Haiti.”

Meanwhile, U.S. officials continued preparations for a possible repeat of the rafter crisis of the 1990s, when tens of thousands of

Haitians attempted the dangerous ocean journey to Florida to escape a brutal military junta.

Once, Aristide united the nation in the hope of a better future.

The former slum priest’s fiery liberation theology helped to end decades of Duvalier family rule and propelled him to victory in

Haiti’s first democratic presidential elections in 1990.

Now isolated by the international community after the disputed results of the parliamentary elections of 2000, his government is

widely accused of corruption, trafficking in drugs and arming political gangs and individual thugs called chimeres – Creole for

“monsters” – who terrorize opponents.

The uprising comes four years into a grinding political deadlock between Aristide and opposition politicians over the 2000


After comparatively peaceful anti-government protests called by minor-party officials and civil-society leaders, an unlikely

coalition of former Aristide enforcers and the soldiers who once hunted them down have seized international attention with the

bloody insurrection that has claimed about 50 lives.

As opposition leaders in Port-au-Prince try to distance themselves from the violence, armed groups such as the Gonaives

Resistance Front and Ramicos in the port of St. Marc are stirring a new set of interests and aspirations into Haiti’s political


Government officials make no distinction among the Democratic Platform coalition of minority-party politicians, the Group of 184

civil-society institutions or the armed rebels, accusing all of acting in concert to overthrow the president.

But the reality is an increasingly fragmented opposition, from the urban poor to the business-owning elite, unreformed

ex-Duvalierists and former Aristide allies, demobilized soldiers and partisan thugs, whose competing and often conflicting claims

will likely complicate any peaceful resolution to the chaos again gripping Haiti.

“This is no longer a game,” said Robert Fatton Jr., chairman of the department of politics at the University of Virginia and a

specialist on Haiti. “This is really now very dangerous, because you have the possibility of a civil war – or something like the

Liberia – type of outcome, where you have gangs all over and no one in charge.”

Caught in the middle are the millions of mostly unemployed citizens who struggle to survive on a dollar a day in the Western

Hemisphere’s poorest nation. Masses live without water or electricity in tin-roofed wooden shacks or cement-block cells in

shantytowns that spread across a sun-scorched landscape of barren plains and denuded mountain slopes.

Nearly half the population suffers from hunger, and HIV-infection rates are the highest outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

The uprising threatens more suffering.

With roadblocks on key highways now slowing the delivery of supplies, water and fuel to some cities, the United Nations is

warning of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Haiti had insufficient capacity to treat casualties.

“The hospitals in Port-au-Prince and other cities are receiving wounded people in urgent need of medical care,” the

Geneva-based organization said. “Many medical facilities, however, are not functioning because staff fear for their own safety.

The situation is also preventing sorely needed medical supplies from being delivered by humanitarian organizations.”

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, said the United States shares blame for conditions in

Haiti after suspending aid following the 2000 elections.

“Aristide would be a much more popular person today – there probably would be no opposition – if the United States had

aggressively freed all the frozen funds and dealt bilaterally with the Haitian government and not just given relief material to the

non-governmental organizations,” he said. “It’s time for the United States to realize that Aristide, for all of his shortcomings, is a

very significant political asset, and they are squandering that asset right now and tarnishing that asset by having him be identified

with the shortage of resources.”

The insurrection was launched last week by remnants of the Cannibal Army, a formerly pro-Aristide gang said to have controlled

the drug trade in Gonaives.

Members rose in defense of Aristide when he announced a supposed coup attempt at the end of 2001, but turned against the

president last fall after the corpse of their leader, Amiot “Cubain” Metayer, was found mutilated. They think the government

feared Metayer’s growing power and had him assassinated.

“I am not a terrorist; I am fighting for the Haitian people,” the militant leader Wilford Ferdinand said in Gonaives after the rebels

took the city. “I am ready to lay down my weapons as soon as Aristide leaves.”

In an ominous development, the Cannibal Army has been fortified by veterans of the Haitian Army dismissed by Aristide in the

new Gonaives Resistance Front.

Opposition to Aristide has grown since the elections of 2000. The president’s Lavalas Family party swept the polls, but opposition

politicians and international observers say some of the races should have gone to a second round of voting.

The United States and other foreign donors suspended about $500 million in aid, a sum roughly equivalent to Haiti’s annual

national budget, further straining the government’s ability to provide basic services. The international community has continued to

support non-governmental organizations.

Aristide, now ruling by decree after the terms of most members of Parliament expired last month, continues to push for new

elections as a way out of the crisis. But he said an opposition likely to lose at the polls is withholding cooperation to undermine his


“I will leave the palace Feb. 7, 2006” – the day his own term expires – Aristide said this past week.

Opponents say Aristide has failed to guarantee the security necessary to hold fair elections. Last fall alone, more than 30 people

were killed in clashes between protesters and government supporters.

The civil opposition in Port-au-Prince has tried to distance itself from the armed uprising.

“Our movement is a non-violent movement,” said businessman Andre Apaid Jr., a leader of the Group of 184 organization of

business and civic leaders, labor leaders and rights activists, students and others.

But their plans to regain the attention being focused on the rebels with what they said would be a peaceful march in the capital

Thursday were thwarted when pro-Aristide forces blocked streets with flaming barricades and piles of rocks.

“Aristide has confirmed he is a delinquent, outlaw president,” Paul said.

But Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, warns that Aristide remains popular among many Haitians.

“An exit of Aristide does not mean that tranquillity will be achieved, because you will still have millions of Haitians who will feel

the guy they chose has been denied them,” he said.

“What takes place in Haiti is going to be very important for the rest of the hemisphere because it’s going to show, if Aristide is

able to survive, that you cannot reverse the results of a democratic procedure, unless there’s a broad national consensus for it. A

broad national consensus does not exist.”

If Aristide were to resign or be overthrown, it is unclear what would come after.

“The question is whether the opposition can unite beyond their opposition to Aristide,” Fatton said. “I don’t think the opposition

could have a candidate that would actually satisfy all the disparate elements of the opposition . . . I think all of the differences

within the opposition will explode.”

© 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).