Jim Lobe, OneWorld US

WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb 9 (OneWorld) — A spreading and increasingly violent rebellion against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is destabilizing the Caribbean nation in ways that could move it to the top of Washington’s foreign-policy.

U.S. officials are deeply concerned that the violence, if not quickly ended, may well spark a new exodus of thousands of Haitian boat people headed for the United States. Reported plans to interdict refugees on the high seas and either repatriate them or transport them to hastily built camps at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba–as Washington did in the early 1990s–are already drawing fire.

While tensions have been building for months, last week’s takeover by an anti-Aristide gang of Gonaives, the country’s fourth largest city, has signaled a major escalation. The gang, which calls itself the Gonaives Resistance Front, was once loyal to the Haitian president but turned against him after the killing under mysterious circumstances of their leader last year.

The takeover set off a widespread looting and burning of government offices throughout the city. When police tried to retake the city, they were beaten back in fighting in which at least nine people were killed, including seven police.

The rebellion spread to St. Marc, another coastal town that has been a center of anti-Aristide sentiment, Sunday. The Associated Press reported that at least 18 people were killed in and around St. Marc and Gonaives in the last four days.

With the growing violence disrupting what remains of economic life, American officials are worried that tens of thousands of famished people may take to the seas in rickety boats, much as they did under a military junta that ousted Aristide in 1991. Only the U.S. military intervention that restored the exiled former priest to power in 1994 stopped the exodus and persuaded many of those who had fled the country to return.

The events of the weekend followed a meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, January 31 between Aristide and representatives of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which has been trying to mediate between Aristide and the opposition. Among other measures, Aristide agreed to disarm pro-government gangs who have attacked demonstrations by opposition forces, particularly students, in recent months; “reform” the police force; appoint a new prime minister acceptable to the political opposition; and call new legislative elections since the current parliament’s mandate expired last month

But the opposition, which has rejected several past offers by Aristide to hold elections, has shown little if any willingness to negotiate with the president who returned to power in elections in 2000 that the opposition and some international observers believe were carried out unfairly.

The opposition has insisted that Aristide first resign as president, two years before his term is set to expire, but Aristide has refused to do so. “I will leave here on February 7, 2006,” Aristide said last week on his return from Jamaica. “People must respect that principle, one man, one vote.”

The Bush administration, which has made little secret of its distaste for Aristide, has called on all sides to forgo violence. Without endorsing the opposition’s demands that Aristide step down, however, it has also called repeatedly for the Haitian president to undertake major economic and political reforms. In the absence of such measures, Washington, while continuing to supply humanitarian assistance, has withheld critical economic and development aid, and persuaded other donors to do much the same.

Thus deprived of significant economic aid, the hemisphere’s poorest nation has plunged into ever-greater misery. A recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (news – web sites) found that 3.8 million people–roughly half Haiti’s population–“are unable to secure their minimum food requirements.”

What economic reforms Aristide has carried out, largely at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have actually added to his unpopularity, particularly among key sectors, such as public-sector workers and poor people hit hard by the reduction of subsidies for food and transportation, which had been his strongest constituencies.

Disillusioned with Aristide, many of his past champions, including grassroots groups, labor unions, and professional associations have joined opposition, some of which includes forces that flourished during the Duvalier period and again during the military junta, including the mulatto economic elite.

As a result, the opposition appears to agree on only one thing: Aristide must resign. Apart from that common denominator, anti-Aristide forces are deeply divided with some calling for the U.S. to intervene to ensure Aristide’s departure, and others vowing to fight any such intervention.

The stalemate, however, is clearly provoking both greater violence and growing immiseration for the vast majority of the country’s poor – conditions that would appear to make far more likely a major exodus.

According to Kathie Klarreich, a long-time, Miami-based Haiti observer, the State Department has contacted a dozen relief groups in the past month about possibly running a refugee camp with as many as 50,000 beds at the Guantanamo naval base. In the 1991-94 period of military rule in Haiti, the base housed nearly 70,000 Haitians who had been interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard before reaching U.S. shores.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Klarreich noted that fewer than 1,500 Haitians were interdicted in 2003, but that the State Department are convinced that thousands could begin leaving even this month.

A new interdiction effort, according to Klarreich, risks further embarrassing the United States, not only because it will demonstrate the persistent instability in nations that virtually border the U.S. at a time when the administration is pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan and Iran, but also because of the obvious “double standard” it employs with respect to Haitian refugees.

Current U.S. directives make it virtually impossible for Haitians fleeing the island to receive refugee status in the United States, and last April Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that Haitians posed a threat to national security because their homeland was used as a transit route for Islamist terrorists. The policy has been used to justify the indefinite detention of Haitians who somehow reach U.S. shores.

People who may flee Haiti now, according to Klarreich, are fleeing “chaos created by unruly mobs, a politicized police force, and a resounding lack of leadership”–all of which should entitle them to refugee status.

The preparations for a Guantanamo camp, however, suggest that the administration, which no doubt remembers the political costs to President Jimmy Carter of the 1980 Mariel exodus from Cuba, has no intention of granting that status to Haitians.