By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 6 — In the days ahead, Marie-Yvlene Gilles, a prim woman with gold-rimmed glasses and tight braids, plans to make a grim tour of the morgues, slums and ruined houses to determine what has happened to her country.

She returned to her office at the National Coalition for Haitian Rights on Wednesday, three days after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile, as the fury of looting and violence ebbed from the capital. But the death threats against Gilles and the other human rights investigators did not wait for the office to open.

The call came within hours of Aristide’s pre-dawn resignation, and warned Gilles and her staff to watch their backs. She does not know who was behind the threat, as both Aristide supporters and their political opponents have reason to feel imperiled by her work.

But Gilles suspects members of the triumphant rebel army, some of whom have been convicted in absentia of political killings in recent years and whose crimes she has described in reports. The caller’s number is stored in her cell phone, but she does not know where to deliver the evidence in a country where the elected government has vanished in the face of a rising armed threat, carried out by men determined to restore the army to its traditional place at the top of Haitian politics.

“All of these people have just come back,” Gilles said.

By many measures, Aristide failed to fulfill the democratic promise of his 1990 election, which ended nearly two centuries of military-backed government in Haiti. The former Roman Catholic priest, who helped topple the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, practiced a winner-take-all politics by packing all levels of government with his partisans and employing armed gangs to intimidate political opponents.

Within his imperfect democracy, however, sprouted the beginnings of a government that was more responsive to Haiti’s poor and willing for the first time to take on difficult human rights prosecutions — at least against its enemies. Now those tentative openings may disappear as the political power shifts back from Aristide’s mostly poor followers to a group of former military officers, traditionally the enforcement arm of Haiti’s economic elite, who have reentered politics at the head of a rebel army.

Literacy programs, laws to raise living standards for the vast majority of Haitians who live in poverty, and judicial reforms that brought seminal prosecutions of military and paramilitary figures for past crimes are suddenly at risk. So, too, is Haiti’s weak democracy as an appointed government struggles to guide the country until its next elections.

Many members of Aristide’s Lavalas party have fled the country in fear, retracing a route they followed after Aristide’s first ouster by a military coup in 1991. U.S. troops returned him to power three years later, and a multinational force that includes 1,000 Marines are again standing in the middle of Haiti’s political divide.

Thousands of prisoners have been set free across the country, including former military officers serving time for political killings and many others who say they were wrongly jailed by the Aristide government. Meanwhile, armed civilians from the wealthy hilltop neighborhoods of the capital patrol slums loyal to the president in luxury sport-utility vehicles. Although an exact count has yet to be performed, human rights workers say the number of reprisal killings carried out since Aristide’s Feb. 29 resignation could be in the dozens.

“It’s hard to think of a more abrupt and complete reversal of the progress we made,” said Brian Concannon, a U.S. lawyer with the Bureau of International Lawyers who had helped Aristide’s government prosecute groundbreaking human rights cases in recent years. “What has happened is disastrous.”

Political Passions

As news of Aristide’s resignation first rippled over radios across the capital, angry crowds surrounded the offices of the National Literacy Program in the middle-class neighborhood of Delmas 19. The mob tried to enter the building but was pushed back by police firing shots into the air. Cars emblazoned with the program’s logo were stolen.

Although the program’s annual budget was only $1.2 million, Aristide’s constant advocacy of the campaign made it a symbol of his populist government. He launched the program in September 2001 in an address to thousands of supporters packed into a downtown soccer stadium.

In a country where 65 percent of the population cannot read, the program turned elementary schools into adult literacy classrooms each afternoon. The Cuban government designed the reading lessons broadcast daily on community radio stations. Aristide estimated that 100,000 people had learned to read because of the campaign — a figure even some program officials say is high.

“Even up until now the literacy campaign has been a political affair,” a program manager, who said he was afraid to give his name, commented during a recent interview at the mostly empty offices. “At the same time, it is extremely important for the future development of this country. Now we just wait to see what will happen with it.”

Neither the classes nor the radio lessons have started again, leaving hundreds of people such as Toussaint Destin and his wife with a first-grader’s reading ability and a desire for more. The education minister has remained out of sight since Aristide’s departure, and the manager is preparing a report that will determine whether the program will continue.

Like many Haitians, Destin, 55, is a jack of all trades. He has a small potato and corn farm near the capital, and earns a little money betting on his fighting cocks. The birds are tied to small stakes in the shadow of the half-built office building where he lives with 10 children.

Destin and his wife began attending the free classes six months ago, and several neighbors joined them each afternoon in the classroom across the street. Now, Destin, a jolly man with close-cropped gray hair and sloping shoulders, can read street signs.

“They could kill Aristide right now and I wouldn’t forget what he has done for us,” said Destin, who voted for Aristide in 2000. “We’d never had anything like it before. Once it started we’ve tried to hold onto it tight.”

Aristide aroused political passions among many Haitians who had never felt a part of public life. Many later turned against him as his government adopted increasingly authoritarian tactics, including allowing armed gangs to operate in poor neighborhoods to keep down a growing opposition movement.

Those gangs are now demanding a commitment to Aristide’s populist agenda from whatever new government emerges from a selection process overseen by U.S. and other diplomats.

James Petit-Frere, 22, worked as a guide and translator for the U.S. troops in 1994. Today he is a leader of an Aristide gang in Cite Soleil, the sun-bleached seaside slum that is the capital’s largest. He rides through the maze of dirt alleys and open sewers, lined with cinder-block shacks, behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi pickup in a trademark straw hat. He keeps a .45-caliber pistol tucked in his baggy pants.

In recent days, Petit-Frere said, he has been meeting with other leaders of pro-Aristide gangs, which served as the funnel for much of the party’s patronage in the slums. He said the gangs could count on 3,000 armed men to keep the police and their paramilitary collaborators out of Cite Soleil, indefinitely if need be.

“Aristide is gone already,” Petit-Frere said. “And we don’t want to die anymore. But if the United States makes this government, it must have someone in it who represents the poor man. If I die and everyone else here dies, there will still be more to keep this up.”

A Chance to Start Over

The looting that followed Aristide’s flight to the Central African Republic devastated a downtown district where many of Haiti’s wealthy families own warehouses and factories. Many were stripped of equipment and merchandise, then burned to the ground. Pierre Saint-Remy’s five factories, which turned out clothes and containers for U.S. retailers, were among them.

Since then Saint-Remy and a group of men who live in Petionville, the heartland of the economic elite, have taken matters into their own hands to root out the Aristide gangs that extorted them for years. Two-way radios connect more than 100 businessmen, he said, and they all carry guns. His only military training is the R.O.T.C. program he completed as a student at Northeastern University in Boston.

“They started off just like normal street gangs, and then they were recognized and armed by Aristide,” said Saint-Remy, 32, echoing a claim corroborated by human rights groups here.

Saint-Remy, a father of three young sons, said he has suffered more than $1 million in losses in the recent violence. But he said he hopes for reconciliation among Haitians after decades of conflict that Aristide exploited for political advantage.

Two years ago, Aristide angered much of the business elite by raising the daily minimum wage from 80 cents to $1.30, a move never enshrined in law. The change pushed Saint-Remy to raise wages for the 1,000 people who work in his factories.

“The new government will decide what to do about this, and I’m sure they won’t lower it, but they should make their decision based on what is really best for business, not just for politics,” Saint-Remy said. “This country only gets so many chances to start over. This may be our last.”

After his return in 1994, Aristide disbanded the army, the instigator of most of Haiti’s 32 coups since it became independent 200 years ago. The rebels who helped remove him from office this time are led by men such as Guy Philippe, a former military officer who has demanded the army’s return.

A number of Philippe’s top lieutenants have been implicated in — and in some cases convicted of — grave human rights abuses, including civilian massacres, in the years between Aristide’s first ouster and his return. Now they patrol the streets freely, surrounded by dozens of armed guards. The sight worries human rights lawyers, who say it sends a message of impunity to potential witnesses that may make future prosecutions nearly impossible.

Concannon helped convict more than 30 military officers and their paramilitary accomplices for ordering the murder of 15 civilians in the seaside slum of Raboteau in 1994. Among those convicted in absentia were leaders of the coup that ousted Aristide in 1991.

At the time of the November 2000 trial, Concannon said, one witness explained his reluctance to testify with a Creole proverb: “A constitution is paper, the bayonet is steel.”

The case still stands as Haiti’s most important human rights victory. But at least three members of the military junta’s high command convicted in the killings were freed by the insurgency the day Aristide fled the country. The men were serving time in the now-empty National Penitentiary.

Given Haiti’s history of instability, prosecuting military leaders took courage, Concannon said.

“They knew the risks better than I did, and they took those risks anyway,” Concannon said in a telephone interview from Oregon, where he lives part of the year. “It’s heartbreaking to see them now, people who for a few years had victory in their hands, scared to death.”

At least two dozen Lavalas officials have fled the country, an exodus that Gilles, the human rights worker, wants stopped. She has accused Yvon Neptune — Aristide’s prime minister, who has remained in his post with U.S. support — of ordering the killing of three opposition members in Saint-Marc, a port north of the capital, as the insurrection approached Port-au-Prince.

“But for now we’re just going to do what we can,” Gilles said. “We’ll keep doing our work.”