February 15, 2004
CITE SOLEIL, Haiti — The fate of this divided nation may hinge on a slum built atop a landfill that is one of the most explosive
social tinderboxes in the Western Hemisphere.
Six square miles of narrow alleys, festering shantytowns and cramped cinderblock hovels, Cite Soleil — “Sun City” — is the
bedrock of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s power in Haiti. Its vast labyrinth of tiny streets and divided turf is a metaphor for
Haiti’s politics, which are a maze of brutal street justice, dark plotting and daunting conspiracy theories.
With some 200,000 residents, it is the largest of a string of slums along Port-au-Prince’s waterfront that collectively account for a
quarter of the capital city’s population. Street gangs with names like “The Last Occasion” hold sway over drug networks,
protection rackets and prostitution rings.
It is here that Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Party recruits the young to toughs known as chimere, who thwarted a march by anti-Aristide
opposition parties last Thursday, and who again may be on the streets for another anti-Aristide protest scheduled for today.
Following a long tradition in Haitian politics, these street soldiers menace and intimidate opponents of whoever occupies the
Consequently, Cite Soleil is the seat of Aristide’s power, with supporters among the chimere and the many poor Haitians who
struggle to survive here.
But if that power — built on political patronage, shared suffering and cash — wanes for Aristide, the whole country could slip into
chaos, say human rights activists, diplomats and even slum dwellers here.
Cite Soleil could go the way of Gonaives, where the assassination of a gang leader named Amiot Metayer in September set in
motion an anti-Aristide uprising two weeks ago that spread to 11 cities and resulted in dozens of deaths. Disaffected
anti-government partisans, calling themselves the Gonaives Resistance Front, still control Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth largest city,
which sits on a major road linking the north and south.
In Boston, a rough Cite Soleil neighborhood at the center of opposition protests in November, reporters touring the slum on
Friday were abruptly cut off by two SUVs filled with gun-toting street soldiers. Their leader, Robinson Thomas, would speak only
briefly to a reporter because he said two of his top lieutenants had been killed earlier in the week — allegedly by Lavalas gangs.
“It’s just not safe to talk right now, even on my own turf, because you never know who is watching, when they might launch a hit,”
said Thomas, 27, who is better known in Haiti by his street name Labanye (“The Banner.”)
“Lavalas is losing control here, and they want to regain it by killing me and other gang leaders,” said Thomas. “If they kill me,
they’ll have an uprising here, but I’ll be dead, so that doesn’t do me any good.”
Top leaders killed
During the last four months, some of the top leaders of Cite Soleil’s major gangs have been killed. Posters on many storefronts
celebrate Thomas’s former boss, Rodson Lemaire, one of the top four or five gang leaders in Cite Soleil. His body was found
riddled with bullets in late October after he broke ranks with Lavalas.
Last weekend, five people were killed who were reportedly aligning themselves with the Group of 184, a coalition of business
groups, trade unions and student organizations that has called for Aristide’s resignation. The group contends Aristide should step
down over contested 2000 legislative elections that were swept by the Lavalas Party. Aristide has refused, despite international
criticism and growing violence in Haiti among more radical opponents of his government in many parts of Haiti.
“Cite Soleil was Aristide’s fiefdom, but he’s losing control,” said Pierre Esperance, head of the National Coalition for Haitian
Rights, one of the country’s leading human rights groups. “What happened last weekend was more score settling. Lavalas needs
to keep control, especially after what happened in Gonaives, so when there are signs of disloyalty, or when people know too much
or are no longer needed, they are dealt with.”
In November, Boston residents erected barricades and shouted “Down with Aristide!” after the death of Lemaire, known as
Colobri (“Hummingbird”) . Posters along the storefronts here openly vow retribution for his death against Fritz Joseph, Cite
Soleil’s mayor and a staunch Lavalas partisan.
“Boston is ground zero right now because that’s where Lavalas feels most threatened,” said Ernst Sentil, 29, who recently fled
the neighborhood under threats for his support of the Group of 184. “People are being shot, their family members kidnapped.
“What keeps Lavalas support up right now is money and guns, especially guns,” Sentil said. “They supply the weapons, and turn
a blind eye on whatever the criminal actors are involved in. But they don’t have the support of the average people there. They are
just living in fear, without schools, food or health care. Their lives have not changed under Aristide.”
Lemaire vs. Lavalas
What turned Lemaire against Lavalas isn’t clear. It may have been money, or simply a perceived lack of respect from Aristide. In
July, he led an attack against members of the Group of 184 who were attempting to hold a rally for their “New Social Contract,” a
political platform for the reform of Haitian society. But after about 30 Group of 184 members and several reporters were injured
in a rock-throwing melee, some gang members publicly condemned Lavalas. One, named Johnny Occillius, gave an interview on
local radio saying he and others were paid $12,500 by Lavalas to disrupt the rally. He then fled to the United States.
But members of the chimere who broke up Thursday’s demonstrations scoff at such talk. Though witnesses said they saw chimere
taking money from a car during Thursday’s failed demonstrations, they denied receiving pay from Lavalas. They are the outraged
poor people, they say, who voted for a popular president in a legitimate election in 2000. Now Haiti’s wealthiest residents, who are
leading the calls for Aristide to resign, are once again trying to usurp the role of the poor masses, they say.
“We want a president to stay in office, a president who works for us, the poor people in the streets, not these rich Arabs,” said
Evans Vital, 34, a chimere captain, referring to Andy Apaid, the third generation Haitian of Lebanese ancestry who leads the
Group of 184.
Added 24-year-old Etienne Guiny, another chimere member: “Who is going to feed the street woman who has to pay 110 Haitian
dollars (about $12) for a small bag of rice? Do you think Andy Apaid, or these 184 people are going to do that? These people are
going to Cite Soleil and trying to find people to overthrow our president. We are not going to let that happen. Look at what
happened in Gonaives.”
Speculating on Lavalas
But Thomas said that the Fanmi Lavalas might be fracturing, splitting into camps whose political leaders run different gangs in
Cite Soleil. The men that killed his two lieutenants are commissaires (commissars), he said, who were dispatched by Lavalas to
“I think what is going on is that the patrons are changing as different people fall out with Aristide in the (Haiti’s Presidential)
palace,” said Thomas, who grew up in Cite Soleil. “My patrons were dumped by Aristide, so they had to clean house. That meant
coming after [Lemaire] — man, I grew up with this guy, really loved him — and now coming after me.”
Thomas recalled how excited his family was at Aristide’s first election in 1990. People loved the street priest, he said, and
believed he would change their fortunes.
“I remember telling my mother that Aristide was going to be president–I must have been 11– and it was so exciting,” he said in
an interview Saturday. “But nothing has changed. The conditions in this place are horrible, just horrible for people, and he’s done
nothing about them.
“How it works is that they pay us to maintain control here–I’ve been given $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 to do some bad things.
Things I cannot talk about now because I’m not safe out of this country yet,” Thomas said. “But I have to tell you I regret it now,
because it didn’t really help anybody here.”I really think that Aristide should go, or at least give the social contract a chance,” he
said, referring to the Group of 184’s improvement plan. “People are at least curious to see what it says, if the people like Apaid
really mean it. But they cannot find out more about it, because it’s just dangerous to talk that stuff in Cite Soleil now.”
What makes the situation so frightening to many observers in Haiti is that, unlike previous eras in the country’s history, there is
no strong government police or military authority to hold back the well-armed chimere gangs. The army was disbanded after a
U.S.-led invasion that reinstalled Aristide to power in 1994, and the 5,000-man police force has been weakened by corruption,
political favoritism and poor training.
Attempting to retake Gonaives back last weekend from the gangs, the national police were easily repulsed.
“That’s what makes this a fairly unique moment. Before there was always a central military authority, for good or for ill, that kept
order and chaos to a minimum,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born scholar of the country at the University of Virginia. “Now I don’t
know what you’ve got. If the police force falls apart, and Aristide loses control of Cite Soleil, then the whole place could easily
erupt into chaos.”
Tim Collie can be reached at email@example.com or at 954-356-4573
Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel