Mitchell off to Washington

For talks related to Haiti’s security


Guardian Staff Reporter

Foreign Affairs Minister, Fred Mitchell is expected to travel to Washington DC, this week, to meet with American and Canadian officials and discuss security matters related to the political unrest prevailing in Haiti; a situation which is said to be now at a critical point.

Since security matters are taking top priority, Mr. Mitchell said no CARICOM meeting is being planned with Haiti at this time. CARICOM had initially hinged subsequent meetings with Haiti’s opposition groups and president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on the outcome of its meeting last week in Port-au-Prince where Minister Mitchell represented The Bahamas.

The Washington talks were prompted as a result of a Haitian opposition group taking control of a northern city in that country last Thursday. The group, calling itself the “Gonaives Resistance Front” (GRF), took control of Gonaives, a city 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The city of Gonaives is the fourth largest in Haiti with a population of approximately 200,000, nearly the same as the population of New Providence.

In the takeover, reports indicated that at least four opponents of president Aristide were killed in gun battles with police and 20 people were wounded. It was also reported that the GRF set fire to the mayor’s home, the police station and freed more than 100 inmates from prison.

The gun battles occurred on the same day Mr. Mitchell left Haiti. Now new reports indicate that stiff gunfights resumed in Gonaives on Saturday and Sunday as president Aristide ordered more police in the city to combat the GRF rebels patrolling the streets. And while battles were taking place in Gonaives, the GRF was reportedly moving to a nearby town, attempting to seize it as well. The GRF has vowed to take control of more cities.

Minister Mitchell said the situation is serious but some international press reports are giving the impression that the entire country is spinning out of control, when the violence is centred in Gonaives.

“Actual facts on the ground, as it’s reported to us through our embassy gives a different picture and we’re being told that the situation [in Gonaives] to some extent is being misrepresented. Clearly it’s a serious development but the government is not threatened,” he said.

He added that there is no broad political support for the GRF and that they have succeeded in the takeover because they have an ample supply of weapons, and the residents have cowered to their demands because of fear. He said Aristide’s government is taking measures to re-establish order in the city but explained that its resources and capacity to do so may be limited.

He said in contrast, on Saturday in Port-au-Prince there was a huge march in support of the government where an estimated 50,000 people turned up on the streets.

“I’m not certain what precipitated it but in Haiti there are marches and counter marches and I don’t think, from the reports we get, that the opposition has been able to mount anywhere near that number so I gather that the game is a numbers game in Haiti,” he said.

The Guardian contacted a member of “Group of 184” (Platform Democratique) who also described the situation as “serious.”

Some Platform Democratique members have apparently given up hope in CARICOM and said any further talks with the 15-nation bloc would be in vain as long as Aristide remains in power. They are convinced that Aristide is the source of Haiti’s political, economic and social problems and have vowed to plan more demonstrations.

The Platform Democratique members, though angry, have not been as militant as the GRF and are claiming the government is resorting to violence against them. A major anti-Aristide demonstration in Port-au-Prince last week turned violent as police fired teargas at students to break them up. The death toll from such demonstrations, since September, now stands at 55; up from 45 just three weeks ago.

President Aristide promised that he would disarm all gangs and publicly destroy all weapons by a March 15 deadline. He also said anti-government activists are entitled to due process and that he would release them from detention if they were found to be held arbitrarily.

The Haitian leader added that he would give a detailed report of his government’s plan to rid thugs of guns and ammunition and reorganise the police force so that it would be better able to deal with security concerns during demonstrations.

The Organisation of American States (OAS), the United States, Canada and the European Union are continuing to monitor the Gonaives situation and demonstrations in other parts of the country.

Representatives from the industrialized nations are expected to again link with CARICOM in an intercessional meeting in Antigua next month. At that meeting, CARICOM will present a formal report on how it will proceed with Haiti in the future. Haiti has to abide by all of its provisions including its Charter of Civil Society and must also uphold three OAS hemispheric resolutions: 806, 822 and 1959, which spell out rules that must be followed for the establishment of an independent Provisional Electoral Council.

Additionally, Haiti must create new rules within five weeks regarding demonstrations, as the opposition has charged that previous rules were discriminatory. The new rules must be seen to be fair to both anti and pro-government protesters; otherwise further doubts would be cast on the fairness and credibility of Aristide’s government, which promised CARICOM that the new rules would be just.