Originally: Interim Haiti leader and Boca Raton resident takes on critics

August 24, 2004.

Interim Haiti leader and Boca Raton resident takes on critics

Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Since becoming interim prime minister of Haiti five months ago, Gérard Latortue has attracted his share of detractors.

Members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and the Caribbean Community have refused to recognize his government. Human rights organizations say he has administered justice unevenly. And Haitians loyal to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide accuse him of being part of a U.S.-led coup-d’état against the departed leader.

But Latortue, a Boca Raton resident, said in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the criticism has more to do with the U.S. presidential elections than his policies.

“A lot of this is part of people who are fighting against the Bush administration,” he said from a parlor in his private residence. “It’s not about Haiti, really. They’re doing all that because they believe this government is supported by the present American administration, and they are using it to fight against the re-election of President Bush.”

Aristide left the country Feb. 29 as rebel forces advanced on Port-au-Prince. He later accused the United States of forcing him from office, a charge Washington denies. Since then, the international community has been divided over his departure.

The 15-member CARICOM has called for an investigation, and the Organization of American States agreed to look into the issue. Aristide is in temporary exile in South Africa.

Latortue, a retired economist and U.N. official, was appointed interim prime minister in March by a Haitian council of political leaders. He said the government is making significant progress as it leads the country toward 2005 elections. He said the economy is being revived, schools are functioning normally, electricity has increased, and political violence has declined since Aristide’s departure.

“We have a government that is committed to law and order, a government that is in favor of total inclusion of all Haitians,” he said. “A government that will not participate in the next election, therefore has no political interests. We just want the election to be as free as possible, as transparent as possible, and what we want is the most popular man to be elected.”

In the meantime, he said, Haiti is back in the limelight of the international community. Last week, the president of Brazil visited the country for a friendly soccer match between Haiti and Brazil. Latortue said he has also been receiving visits from other dignitaries from Latin America and Europe.

“Haiti now is no longer as isolated as it was under the Aristide regime,” he said. “Hope is coming back to Haitians. And they realize that we’re a government that’s functioning under the rule of law.”

Shortly after his appointment, Latortue referred to armed rebels who led the rebellion against Aristide in the prime minister’s hometown of Gonaïves as freedom fighters, which rankled some in the human rights community.

His relationship with the Caribbean Community soured earlier this year when Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson granted Aristide a temporary stay in Jamaica to visit his children. Members of the organization remain at a stalemate over whether to recognize the Latortue government.

In recent months, the prime minister has also been criticized for the arrest of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, and the government’s handling of the trial of ex-paramilitary chief Louis-Jodel Chamblain.

Chamblain, who helped lead the armed rebellion against Aristide, was acquitted in a one-day trial last week in the 1993 political murder of a strong Aristide supporter, Antoine Izmery. He had been tried and convicted of the crime in absentia in 1995, while living in exile in the Dominican Republic. At the time, he was also convicted of a massacre of Aristide supporters in Raboteau, a slum of Gonaïves.

Chamblain and co-defendant Jackson Joanis, who also was acquitted, remain incarcerated to face other charges.

Human rights organizations denounced the swift acquittals and accused the government of showing impunity to the rebels while hunting down Aristide supporters.

But Latortue prepared a statement over the weekend saying the government’s judiciary branch functions independently of the executive branch. He said Haitian law requires that a person arrested in absentia receive a new trial when he surrenders but does not allow for new investigations. He said the verdict was rendered by a 38-member jury that didn’t find the evidence established under Aristide’s government convincing.

“In those days, Aristide could do whatever he wanted with justice,” Latortue said. “So the dossier was not necessarily well-prepared, because the verdict was known in advance. Those same papers today cannot resist the criticism of the defense lawyer.

“We understand the emotion created by that, but we cannot do anything.”

He also dismissed charges by members of Aristide’s party, the Lavalas Family, that the government is persecuting them. Many of them say they’re now living in exile in South Florida because they fear for their lives.

“Everybody realizes that Haiti has changed considerably, and for the better,” he said. “Even the Lavalas people recognize that after Aristide’s departure ,they did not suffer the way the Duvalierists suffered in 1986 when [ex-President Jean-Claude] Duvalier left the country.”

Not everyone is convinced. A cruise marking the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence made only a brief visit to a remote beach last week. .

But Latortue said his critics are part of a campaign to discredit his leadership.

“A large party of some leftist organizations are really biased in favor of Aristide under the pretext that Aristide was fighting American imperialism, and everything he did was good,” he said. “And many of those people also have profited a lot from the lobbyist funds so largely spent by Aristide to pay foreign lobbyists.”

Alva James-Johnson