Originally: Opposition Movements in Haiti Threaten Country’s Stability

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – (KRT) – The violent takeover of Haiti’s fourth largest city by a slum gang offers a frightening glimpse of one possible future for the impoverished nation: Chaos.

Many Haiti watchers now fear a prolonged collapse similar to failed states like Somalia or Liberia – especially if the United States and the international community do not take a greater role in resolving Haiti’s many problems.

Wracked by worsening poverty and political violence, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government may be losing control over key areas of the country. Gonaives has been the scene of periodic violence since September, when a major figure, Amiot “Cubain” Metayer, was murdered. In the Central Plateau, another group known as the Motherless Army, composed of former army members, has carried out assassinations of government officials and sacked villages.

Meanwhile, the country’s capital has been the scene of frequent large protests by coalitions of students, civic groups, business leaders and other members of the urban elite. They have been pushed together by the continuing economic decay, as well as attacks on their ranks by gangs linked to the government.

Though Aristide’s government labels them all as one opposition movement, there seem to be few links between these groups, and that’s what makes the situation so dangerous, some experts say.

There is no figure of Aristide’s stature to counter Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader. There is no rival who commands anywhere near the following that the former priest still has among the poor.

If Aristide was overthrown, the various groupings of gang leaders, politicos, urban elites and intellectuals could easily turn on each other.

“That’s why this is a very dangerous moment in Haiti, dangerous both for the government and the peaceful opposition,” said Robert Fatton, a leading authority on Haiti at the University of Virginia. “If what is happening in Gonaives is the opposition’s vision for Haiti, then the future is pretty grim indeed.

“I don’t think these various groups are linked, but what happens in Gonaives encourages the forces in Port-au-Prince, which then holds marches and rallies and inspires the army in Gonaives to go that much further,” said Fatton, author of “Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy.” “But the only thing that unites these groups is their hatred of Aristide. If he left tomorrow, you’d have all kinds of struggles among the opposition. The whole country could easily fall apart.”

The resulting fragments would run the gamut from dedicated democratic activists on one end of the political spectrum to a dark force of drug traffickers and armed thugs whose alliances continually shift based on power and money.

With only a national police force under his control – the army was disbanded under international supervision in the 1990s – Aristide has maintained power over Haiti’s streets with armed gangs known as chimere. These young toughs knock skulls and run drug and kidnap rings in exchange for political patronage – many can be found working as luggage handlers at the international airport.

That formula has worked for Aristide, diplomats and other observers say, but it’s unclear whether he or his political party still have control over these gangs. Their clout swelled by drug money, many chimere gangs now may be a power unto themselves. A similar situation exists in Jamaica, where political parties lost control of their street wings, which became the notorious drug posses.

“If the United States doesn’t give more support to the peaceful opposition, the Group of 184 and other groups, then this is what they’re going to end up with — groups like the Cannibal Army,” James Morrell, a onetime Aristide adviser who now heads the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project. The Group of 184 is a leading civic opposition group based in Port-au-Prince.

Thursday’s uprising was led by a group formally known as the Cannibal Army, now renamed the Artibonite Resistance Front. Based in the shanty town of Robateau, they are a hardcore mix of former Aristide supporters and elements of the FRAPH, a paramilitary squad that menaced Haiti during the early 1990s, after Aristide was overthrown during his first administration.

“These are not democrats by any means – they don’t have a political philosophy other than power and money,” said Fatton.

When Aristide returned to power, he used them to menace his opponents. Led by Metayer, the group controlled Gonaives as a stronghold for Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party for years. In 2002, under international pressure, the government arrested Metayer. But using a bulldozer, his supporters busted Metayer out of prison a month later. The jailbreak also freed a slew of notorious prisoners, including Jean Tatoune, who was serving a life sentence for a massacre of Aristide partisans in 1994, during a period when some 5,000 Aristide partisans were murdered.

Metayer and Tatoune joined forces. The militia leader seemed to have reached some arrangement with the government. Despite a warrant for his arrest, he openly held court in Gonaives while the police claimed to be searching for him. But in September, after an alleged meeting with an Aristide emissary, his mutilated corpse was found with both eyes shot out. Gonaives has been in a tense state ever since.

A revolt in Gonaives touches a nerve in Haiti, which is enjoying only its first decade of democratic government after 200-year history of instability and 30 military coups. It was there that Haiti’s independence was proclaimed January 1, 1804. In 1985, the city also saw the first revolt against Jean-Claude Duvalier, which ultimately led to that dictator’s downfall in February, 1986.

“Right now I can’t tell you where this is all going to go, but it doesn’t look good,” said Alex Dupuy, a sociologist who has written extensively on Haiti at Wesleyan University. “The opposition, in my view, is not acting in the interests of the Haitian people. But Aristide isn’t acting in their interests either.”