Originally: A Troubled Haiti Struggles to Gain Its Political Balance
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Jacques Rafael stood in front of the Moderne Store in downtown Port-au-Prince where his boss, a 52-year-old woman, was recently shot to death by members of the gangs who control this city’s slums.
“They say the former government was no good,” he said, referring to the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, overthrown in February. “But when Aristide was here, we could stay open until 10 p.m. Now we can’t even stay open until 4 in the afternoon.”
Around the corner, at the nearby school, Lycée Pétion, the students were headed home at 9 a.m. The police recently wounded three students there during a shootout with gang members, and the fearful teachers had stayed home, as they do many days now.
“We’re the ones paying for what is going on,” said Franzo Caryce, 19. “We expected more from Latortue.”
Nine months after taking office, the interim government of Prime Minister Gérard Latortue is besieged by mounting criticism from every sector of society. Recent street fighting, some of it involving gangs that supported Mr. Aristide, has claimed an estimated 200 lives and left much of Port-au-Prince’s business district deserted. Many business owners are in hiding after a wave of kidnappings, and rebels control large swaths of the country.
“Latortue is not serious about the security situation,” said a member of a government panel who insisted on anonymity. “The civil wars in Somalia and Lebanon started like this and that’s where we are heading.”
Many politicians and experts said in recent interviews that the election scheduled for next November to restore democracy here was in danger of being compromised or canceled.
“Latortue may or may not survive as prime minister – that’s almost beside the point,” said Henry Carey, a professor and Haiti scholar at the University of Georgia. “He shows no credible signs of holding elections. He doesn’t have an election commission that is working.”
Outside the country, there is also growing alarm. “Haiti is on the verge of becoming a permanently failed state hemorrhaging instability throughout the Caribbean in the form of refugees, violence and drugs,” said a report in November from the International Crisis Group.
Two recent studies prepared by experts on Haiti for the United States Southern Command of the United States Army refer to “the now-discredited Latortue government” and recommend consideration of a plan to turn the country into an international protectorate, an idea openly debated in the Haitian media.
Mr. Latortue did not appear for an interview scheduled by his staff, and his spokesman, Mike Joseph, would not answer questions.
The few defenders of Mr. Latortue, a former United Nations bureaucrat and television talk show host, say he has been hamstrung by a lack of money – little of the $1.4 billion promised by donors has been delivered. They say his reputation has been unfairly tainted by his dependency on United Nations peacekeepers regarded as too passive.
“They are here on vacation” is the phrase uttered again and again by Haitians when speaking of the 7,000-member force.
The United Nations force worked at half-strength for nearly five months after its arrival and has been reluctant to act against armed groups. “I command a peacekeeping force, not an occupation force,” said Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, head of the Brazilian contingent, in response to calls by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other international leaders to act more aggressively. “We are not there to carry out violence.”
United Nations officials say they are here to support Haitian police efforts at disarmament. Experts estimate that Haiti needs 100,000 police officers, though. The current force numbers about 3,000, many of whom have little training and equipment.
In the town of Mirebalais, Haitian radio reported recently that rebel forces disarmed the Haitian police.
As Mr. Powell visited the presidential palace in November, the United Nations peacekeepers and the Haitian police failed to secure the adjacent neighborhood of Bel Air, a stronghold of the pro-Aristide gangs. Daylong skirmishes broke out after gunfire erupted. Three civilians were killed and a dozen wounded in what has become a routine day of violence in the Haitian capital.
While the pro-Aristide gangs have garnered attention lately with their random killings, Mr. Latortue is perhaps under greater pressure from rebel forces made up largely of former members of the Haitian Army.
Disbanded in 1994 by Mr. Aristide, who was then the president, the former soldiers re-emerged and were instrumental in driving him from power this past February. They are demanding reinstatement and 10 years’ worth of back pay.
Mr. Latortue referred to them as “freedom fighters” last spring in a speech that infuriated Haitians still loyal to Mr. Aristide. But the rebels now have turned on him.
Remissainthe Ravix, a rotund army corporal turned sword-carrying commandant, has denounced Mr. Latortue as a traitor on radio and television. “It is not us who are illegal, it is the government of Latortue that is illegal,” he said last week.
Mr. Latortue, who has a penchant for establishing commissions, has appointed two commissions to study the question of how to deal with the rebel soldiers. One commission was disbanded in December. The second never met, members said.
Mr. Latortue has said that his interim government did not have a mandate to resolve the question of the disbanded Haitian Army, which in its previous incarnation was linked to human rights abuses and coups. The government elected in 2005 will deal with the issue, he has said.
The rebels have greatly increased their power recently, rearming and recruiting hundreds of new fighters. They now exert significant control over several ports and provinces as well as eight urban centers. A United Nations official and a high-ranking government official here said that the ports were used to bring in guns and to finance the rebel expansion through smuggling.
Mr. Latortue recently angered Haiti’s most powerful business leaders – many of them instrumental in overthrowing Mr. Aristide while Mr. Latortue was living in Florida, – by telling them that they had no business meddling in politics.
In what is seen as a typical misstep, Mr. Latortue’s security forces arrested the Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, a prominent human rights leader and Aristide supporter. He was held without charges for six weeks and then released. His popularity increased, and though he has not confirmed that he will run, he is now considered a front-runner in this year’s presidential elections.
Some university students held a rally to call for Mr. Latortue’s removal and to honor Weber Adrien, an advocate for change who was pulled from his home and killed by Aristide partisans who also mutilated his body. Many students were veterans of the student movement that helped to overthrow Mr. Aristide ; they have now shifted their ire to Mr. Latortue.
They milled about listening to speakers and looking at crude posters with pictures of Mr. Adrien smiling into the camera. Others showed his burned body on the ground, the severed head placed carefully back in position.
“Latortue is doing a terrible job,” said Josué Mentien, a protest leader. “If he does not change, we’ll force him out, the same as Aristide.”
Jean Fanor, a tall, bespectacled history student, disagreed. “The students are really divided right now,” he said. “If the violence continues, the anti-Latortue group will grow. But the answer is not to keep pushing leaders out of power. The answer is for real change to come. That is what we are waiting for.”