Originally: Pro-Aristide gangs make a battlefield of Haiti’s Fifth Avenue

Pro-Aristide gangs make a battlefield of Haiti’s Fifth Avenue
8 octobre 2004

Looking out through the chicken wire on the second floor of his insurance brokerage in Port-au-Prince, Ronald Chenet admits it is hard to believe that Rue Pave, the street below, was once home to the Haitian capital’s most exclusive shops. Outside, two heavily armed black-helmeted policemen stand guard beside rotting garbage.

There is the sound of occasional gunfire – up a nearby hill is the dirt-poor suburb of Belair, the stronghold of violent gangs calling for the return to Haiti of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled populist president.

What Mr Chenet describes as “our equivalent of Fifth Avenue” is the nearest thing to a front line in the battle between the Haitian police with its United Nations military backers and the gangs known by their opponents as Chimères, or ghostlike creatures. They support a man still seen as messiah by many of Haiti’s poverty-stricken majority.

Port-au-Prince is still as poor and chaotic as ever but it has enjoyed a few more stable months since the arrival of UN security forces after the forced departure of Mr Aristide in February.

Electricity supplies are more regular and the centre of Port-au-Prince, particularly around the glistening white presidential palace, appears surprisingly well cared for.

On the narrow crowded streets that lead to the centre, street sellers offer everything from baskets of oranges and bananas to three-day-old copies of Haiti’s two daily newspapers and bottles of Bleu Naturel mineral water. There are even signs that nightlife is making a comeback.

According to one marine officer from the Brazilian contingent leading the UN peacekeepers : “Now we see posters advertising dances. They weren’t there when we came in June.”

But over the past few days some of the familiar tension has returned to the capital. Last Thursday, as the government was reeling from the consequences of last month’s catastrophic flood, pro-Aristide Chimères gangs stepped up their campaign to bring Mr Aristide back to Haiti from South Africa. The first fruits of an operation that the government has dubbed “Operation Baghdad” were the grisly beheadings of two policemen.

The government then cracked down on the gangs by arresting four senior politicians from Mr Aristide’s Lavalas party. More people were then killed in tit-for-tat violence – at least 45 in all over the past week. With the situation threatening to run out of control, the government late on Tuesday sent newly formed UN and local police joint patrols into Belair and other Chimère strongholds. On Wednesday morning security forces arrested 75 suspected gang members.

Business is quieter than normal – many shops and offices shut their doors this week. At the Episcopalian school over the road from Mr Chenet, director Fernanda Pierre-Louis says more than half her 1,000 pupils have been unable to get to classes since term began last month.

Next door, Father Fritz Desire is visibly shaken by the renewed upsurge in shootings and kidnappings. Priests and even their bishop – whose car was hijacked in Belair – have been among the victims. “The possibility of violence is always there,” says Mr Desire, who was ordained only a year ago. “The groups have a problem. They are crazy. It is impossible what they are asking for.”

For much of the past week Belair, Cit Soleil and other slum areas have been no-go areas even more than usual. Traffic has been diverted around Belair, adding to the density of jams on Port-au-Prince’s already overcrowded streets.

Mr Chenet is philosophical about the broader importance of recent events, putting Haiti’s and his own brokerage’s problems in perspective.

For his own brokerage, things have not been stable in Haiti since 1986, when the departure of Duvalier sparked an uneasy transition to democracy and 18 years of political uncertainty.

The days when he could sell standard insurance policies in the local currency – the gourde – have long gone. The days wherein he could find a better deal than what he’s offered for his barter are gone. Looting of shops has become virtually endemic so insurers refuse to underwrite shopkeepers selling food, electrical goods or car parts, forcing many out of business.

Haitians like life assurance but most can no longer afford it. One of Mr Chenet’s best-selling products is expensive medical insurance that allows those who can afford it to be flown to Miami for hospital treatment.

“People will sacrifice anything for that. If they get hit by a stray bullet they know they’ll be OK,” he said.

While there is talk in some quarters of even more violence between the Chimère and paramilitary gangs staffed by soldiers from the army dissolved by Mr Aristide, the insurance broker is sanguine about the risks. “Haitians like to bluff but they are having their bluff called. The government and the UN have the power and the muscle to intervene.”