PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI ? As the number of US marines in Haiti’s capital approaches 1,000, small groups of them began to move into the tense neighborhoods near the presidential palace, using armored vehicles to push torched cars and other debris from the streets.
The physical vestiges of a month-long crisis that violently pitted armed insurgents and a disparate political opposition against the government – culminating in Sunday’s resignation and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the arrival of international security forces – are being cleared away.
The patrols may be a harbinger of the healing, or the chaos, that’s ahead. Haitians are relieved that the barricades – built by Aristide supporters and those fearful of the rebels – are being cleaned out, returning some semblance of normalcy. But some say the marines’ cleanup may be a sign that Haitians aren’t ready to solve their own problems.
” ‘Strength in union’ is our motto, it’s right up there on our flag,” says Alexi Bergelat, a mechanic, pointing to the national banner waving from the presidential palace. “But since our independence 200 years ago we’ve never been able to achieve that. In one way we are happy the Americans are here, but it also reminds us of our failures as a nation.”
Some Haitians flashed the marines a thumbs-up as they took up posts or roared through town; most responded passively. But with each day the US military presence – initially criticized by some Haitians and Americans alike for being too slow and tentative – is having a clearer impact.
Most evident so far is the influence the US presence has had on Haiti’s armed rebels. The militia now says it will lay down its arms and go home.
After entering the capital with a swagger on Monday and then quickly taking a series of brash but divisive and disruptive steps – most notably declaring himself the head of a disbanded Haitian army and announcing he would arrest the prime minister – rebel leader Guy Philippe abruptly changed his tone. At a subdued press conference Wednesday, Mr. Philippe gave little explanation other than to say that “foreign troops have given their guarantee to protect the Haitian people.”
Asked earlier by the Monitor why he had decided to stop activities he had committed to a day earlier – such as patrolling against the armed gangs created and supported by the departed Aristide, or providing security for a food giveaway by the US-based Global Peace Initiative – Philippe said, “The Americans don’t want us to; the Americans don’t want us here.”
The US is clearly anxious to demonstrate that Haiti’s post-Aristide transition is following an orderly process based on the country’s Constitution, a process that does not have room for an extralegal group.
Philippe says he was assured by US officials that they would begin taking steps to disarm the pro-Aristide gangs known as chimères. But several sources with contacts among the rebels say the US also let Philippe know it would not tolerate disruptive acts like announcing a move to arrest the prime minister, or plans to confront the chimères.
The US showdown with the rebels does not preclude their return. With many Haitians predicting the country will eventually reverse Aristide’s disbanding of the Army a decade ago, Philippe says he hopes to play the leadership role in a new army. He briefly declared himself Haiti’s “military chief” this week.
“We’re going to have an army here no matter what,” says Reynaldo Corvington, a private security consultant in Port-au-Prince. He says either the US moves to disarm the chimères, who still control the capital’s worst slums where Aristide enjoyed fervent support, or someone else will.
Still, the return of a military that for many Haitians conjures up memories of repression does not meet unanimous support. At a press conference announcing the state of emergency Wednesday, Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said the question of an army would be taken up by the next government. But he added that the army “never protected the country or the people.” In any case, Mr. Neptune, an Aristide appointee, is not expected to be in office much longer.
To get Haiti’s political transition rolling, a tripartite commission with one member each from the government; the Democratic Platform, an umbrella organization of the political opposition; and the international community will name a committee of “wise men” to form an interim government. Haiti’s Constitution calls for new elections to take place between 45-90 days after a president resigns.
But no one expects elections for a new legislature and president to take place before a year at the earliest.
“The international community’s plan looks at a year and the Democratic Platform plan suggests two years, so it will probably be somewhere in between,” says the United Nations Develompent Programme Mr. Guindo, the international member of the tripartite commission.
Interim President Boniface Alexandre this week named a new chief of the national police – one more step in the process of wiping away Aristide’s influence over security affairs.
But all during the transition, international forces will be on Haiti’s streets. The interim multinational force headed up by the US marines will be replaced in three months by UN stabilization forces, which are expected to number around 5,000.