Originally: Interview: Arielle Jean-Baptiste and Ira Kurzban discuss the political situation in Haiti

Arielle Jean-Baptiste

Haiti Democracy Project associate

National Public Radio

National Public Radio
Tavis Smiley

February 10, 2004

Interview: Arielle Jean-Baptiste and Ira Kurzban discuss the political situation in Haiti

Edition: 9:00-10:00 AM

Estimated printed pages: 8

Article Text:


From NPR in Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley.

On today’s program, we begin a three-part series of conversations on how African-Americans are weighing in on the gay marriage issue. A provocative new book unveils how race and crime affect communities of color now as compared to the past. And finally, we meet the man behind the funk that put James Brown and George Clinton on the map. Our conversation with the teacher, Maceo Parker, comes up later in this program.

But first, the growing uprising in Haiti. Yesterday in the strongest challenge so far to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government, rebels took to the streets in nearly a dozen towns in western and northern Haiti. Gun battles between police and anti-Aristide forces have left more than 41 people dead in this latest round of violence, which the government has described as an attempted coup. Though police succeeded in taking back the port city of St! .-Marc, the campaign to overthrow Aristide seems to be spreading. On the ground right now in Haiti is NPR correspondent Gerry Hadden.

Gerry, thanks for joining us. I appreciate it.

GERRY HADDEN reporting:

Good morning, Tavis.

SMILEY: First of all, tell us where you are and what the situation is like today in the wake of Monday’s violence.

HADDEN: I’m in Port-au-Prince at the moment. The capital is quite calm despite the violence that really began to heat up over the weekend. I came back yesterday evening from St.-Marc, which police say they’ve liberated. While we were there, that still had not occurred, and it looked literally like a war zone there where numerous barricades put up by the armed opposition across the roads, old burned-out cars, tires, boulders, trees, and the whole small city seemed to be divided into two camps. Very, very tense after the 18 or so who were killed there in the last few days. And both sides waiting for! the other to attack again. Now police say they have retaken that town , but the rebels told us that was part of their strategy, to let the police come in, feel comfortable, and then to counterattack, so today may bring more news.

SMILEY: From what you’ve learned so far, is Aristide in any real danger of being overthrown?

HADDEN: Very hard to say. It doesn’t feel or appear imminent, certainly, although Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, is quite important for reasons. Strategically it lies on the only north-south highway, and if it remains in the hands of rebels, that means that the entire–or most of the north of Haiti would be cut off from crucial rice and oil supplies, which could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

It’s also important symbolically. It’s the seat of Haitian independence. It’s where the Haitian slaves 200 years ago first rose up against the French, ad it’s also where the Haitians back in the 1980s rose up against the Duvalier regime, Baby Doc, and drove him from power. So symbolically, to lose Gonaiv! es is quite important.

SMILEY: Gerry, thanks for being with us.

Gerry Hadden is NPR’s correspondent in Haiti.

HADDEN: Thank you.

SMILEY: Yup. My pleasure.

Now we turn to two individuals representing both sides of the widening political divide in that island nation. Both have been on this program before; glad to have them back. Ira Kurzban is the Miami-based general counsel for the government of Haiti, and Arielle Jean-Baptiste is a research associate with the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project, an opposition group.

Glad to have you both back on the program.

Mr. IRA KURZBAN (General Counsel for Haiti): Thank you, Tavis.

Ms. ARIELLE JEAN-BAPTISTE (Haiti Democracy Project): Thank you, Tavis.

Mr. KURZBAN: Good to be here.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: …(Unintelligible).

SMILEY: Nice to have you both. Arielle, let me start with you. You were recently in Haiti taking part in these anti-Aristide! protests. How did this latest round of protests turn so violent?

< /P> Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well, Tavis, what is happening in Haiti right now is very grave. Mr. Aristide is reaping what he sowed. Gangs that he armed to terrorize his opponents have now turned against him after their leader, Amiot Metayer, was killed last September by the government. We also see that the population is supporting these rebels. Tavis, I would like to make a clear distinction between the rebels and the peaceful, non-violent, democratic platform that has been staging the latest demonstration in which I participated. They are two different entities. They don’t know each other. And things got this violent because no one was listening. You know, this is a warning. It has been coming for a while. These people are asking for Aristide to–the uprising, it was bound to happen because they have no alternative. Now they are supporting the rebels.

SMILEY: Ira, tension has been on the rise reportedly since Aristide’s party won flawed legislative elections in! 2000, according to many, certainly some, and international donors blocked millions of dollars, as you well know, in aid. Many of them still are. Why has this, Ira, snowballed into such a contentious issue inside Haiti?

Mr. KURZBAN: Well, I don’t think it’s such a contentious issue inside of Haiti. I think what’s happening right now is that you have a small group of terrorists in Gonaives who over the last two or three months have become very well armed, and I think there’s a question there as to how and in what manner they obtained those arms. The notion that this somehow has spread throughout the country just simply isn’t true, Tavis, and in part that’s due to the fact that the radio stations in Haiti are owned by the same elite who were part of the opposition, and their interest is in spreading a good deal of disinformation, which I think is picked up by the international press.

For example, many of the claims that towns have now been taken over just s! imply isn’t true. There is a serious problem in Gonaives, there’s no question about it, but the prime minister was in St.-Marc yesterday, and in terms of any of these other small towns, it’s very easy for somebody to do a hit-and-run operation when Haiti has 3,500 police. And the core of the problem here is Haiti needs international assistance. The United States and France have led an international blockade against the Haitian government now for three years. That blockade is not only a financial blockade against the Haitian government, they’ve even refused–the United States, for example, has refused to sell Haiti non-lethal weapons. So the police don’t even have in many cases helmets. They don’t even have protective gear. They don’t even have tear gas because the United States has refused to sell it to them.

SMILEY: Let me jump in. Arielle, you hear the points that Ira’s making now about how the international community has turned, as it were, on Haiti and on the government of Aristide, even though the US at one point, you know! , fought to get Aristide back into power and, of course, he was here, once kicked out of his own country. Tell me why it is you see that France and that the US and other nations won’t support Haiti in the way that Mr. Kurzban would like for them to.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well, when I…

SMILEY: There’s obviously a reason here.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Of course there is. I mean, the democratic principles were not respected. Mr. Aristide was asked by the OAS to correct some problems. There were resolutions, 822–there are so many resolutions, I don’t even remember them anymore. I think 1959. He was told that if he didn’t respect this, they would not unblock the funds. Finally, the lobbyists of Mr. Aristide, like Mr. Kurzban, they put a lot of pressure on the IDB and the State Department, and some of the funds were unblocked. Some of the private loans were unblocked by the IDB. The US and the French are not crazy. There’s a reason why they do this. They ! asked Mr. Aristide to correct some problem, which he has not correcte d.

SMILEY: Ira, speaking of correcting problems, what does Haiti need to do–I’m talking about the government now–what do they need to do to establish a functioning democratic system?

Mr. KURZBAN: Well, I think they have a functioning democratic system, Tavis. The president was elected democratically. To the extent that there was a claim that there were, you know, fraud or flawed elections in 2000, within weeks of the president taking office, he was able to get the senators to resign. That should have ended the dispute, if the dispute were truly about these kind of democratic issues. In Port-au-Prince on Saturday, 100,000 people demonstrated in favor of democracy. There was no problem. There was no difficulty with those people. Each time any of the opposition has decided to demonstrate peaceably, there has been no problem. What’s happening now, though, is the opposition has not come out and condemned the violence. Really, just as Arielle has not come ! out and condemned the violence, but they blame President Aristide for these kind of terrorist acts. What we need is a peaceful solution to the problem.

SMILEY: Let me ask …(unintelligible)…

Mr. KURZBAN: President Aristide has said that he’s willing to support the Caricom process, he’s willing to meet with the opposition. Their position is, instead of condemning this violence, is to say Aristide has brought this on himself and he should leave the country. That’s not gonna solve the problem. The democratically elected president is not going to leave the country. And the answer to the problem now is to have a peaceful solution, for the international community to come in and provide the financial support that the police need.

SMILEY: All right, let…

Mr. KURZBAN: Haiti has 3,500 police for eight million people.


Mr. KURZBAN: That’s the–in New York City, we have the 62,000 police for the same number of peop! le.

SMILEY: Let me ask Arielle, Arielle, how do you suggest th at the government will regain control, or will it?

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: The government cannot regain control of the country. Mr. Kurzban says that it’s just Gonaives. I’ve been following this very closely all weekend. The government has lost control of a lot of cities. It has a domino effect, and it will continue. Tavis, Mr. Aristide needs to do a patriotic gesture, if he really loves Haiti, because it’s gotten to that now, in order to stop the escalation of the violence, to move on. That’s when peace will start in Haiti. Until he moves on, everybody with one voice is now asking for the departure of Mr. Aristide. It’s not the small amount, it’s not the people that have money. It’s an uprising. It’s a popular uprising.

SMILEY: Ira, to…

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: You have people on the ground, you can see it for yourself.

SMILEY: Ira, to Arielle’s point, indeed one of the former presidents of Haiti has said, and I quote, “Aristide can no longer sa! ve the situation for his regime. The end is looming,” close quote.

Mr. KURZBAN: That former president, of course, was never a democratically elected president. He was in Haiti during the coup and was appointed by the coup leaders. And the truth is, you know, the way to determine this, Tavis, is very simple. You have elections. That’s what we do in the United States. What Arielle is asking for is, because there’s a small group of terrorists in one city in Haiti, and they may be able to take over some other small towns in Haiti, that a democratically elected president should give up office. What about the 85 percent, the 92 percent that elected him in the year 2000? The 67 percent that elected him in 1991? Should those people give up their democratic rights? This is ultimately about whether or not Haiti’s going to have a democracy. You have a democratically elected president, and what I hear, ironically from the Haiti Democratic Project here, is that a democ! ratically elected president should submit to another coup.

SMIL EY: Of course…

Mr. KURZBAN: President Aristide has eloquently said, `Haiti has had 32 coups in its history, and it’s time that that’s stopped.’ He was democratically elected. If the opposition doesn’t like him, they should do what we do in the United States.

SMILEY: Ira, I’m certain that we’ll come back to this conversation in the coming weeks as warranted. Of course, the former president who I referenced that quote from was Leslie Manigat, just for the record. Ira Kurzban is general counsel for the government of Haiti. Arielle Jean-Baptiste is a research associate with the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project.

I thank you both for your time.

Ms. JEAN-BAPTISTE: Thank you, Tavis.

Mr. KURZBAN: Thank you.

SMILEY: It’s my pleasure.

It’s 19 minutes past the hour.

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Record Number: 200402100901