Violence in Haiti Abates, but Not the Tension
Relative calm follows a plea from the U.S., which steps up criticism of President Aristide. He calls for order and a return to commerce.
By Carol J. Williams and Paul Richter
Times Staff Writers
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After a U.S. appeal for an end to violence by supporters of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as well as by armed rebels threatening to attack here, both factions stood back Saturday from a looming clash in this terrified capital.
Nonetheless, the White House sharply escalated its criticism of Aristide on Saturday, suggesting in the bluntest terms yet that he should surrender his office to restore peace.
"The long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide's doing," the White House statement said, and "his own actions have called into question his fitness to remain in office." Although the statement stopped just short of urging his resignation, it said, "We urge him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility, and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti."
Early today, rumors swept the capital that a diplomatic delegation had gone to the National Palace and that Aristide was headed for asylum in South Africa, but there was no sign of his departure at the airport.
On Friday, the U.S. Embassy here had appealed to Aristide to rein in his loyalists, who had erected burning barricades, robbed motorists, looted businesses and executed suspected enemies ahead of the feared invasion by anti-Aristide rebels.
The besieged president responded by urging the armed street gangs defending him to restore order and to remove their barricades during daylight so commerce could resume amid the smoldering debris.
His response was matched by the leader of the insurgency, Guy Philippe, who said in the rebel-held city of Cap Haitien that he was holding off on an attack here for a day or two to allow time for diplomats to persuade Aristide to step down and defuse the crisis.
Philippe had said he would take Port-au-Prince by today, his 36th birthday, although the chaos unleashed in recent days by hundreds of pro-Aristide chimeres — Creole for a mythical monster — appeared to sober his expectations of an easy march to the National Palace.
Despite a slight easing of the tension and fear that have paralyzed Port-au-Prince, only street peddlers and a few pedestrians braved going out in public Saturday. The only vehicles negotiating the piles of rubble left on the roads by Aristide backers, who loitered nearby, were those of journalists and the tap-tap trucks that serve as buses and vans transporting street thugs.
A late-night television address Friday by Aristide, repeated Saturday morning, blamed the lawlessness on "baseless rumors" that foreign powers have urged him to resign for the good of the country. He said his stepping down was "out of the question."
The United States has appealed to Aristide to recognize that he has lost his authority amid the 3-week-old rebellion in which more than half of Haiti's territory has fallen to the rebels. Townspeople have cheered the armed invaders, and officers of the national police force have deserted in droves rather than defend Aristide's government.
The Bush administration has been in a delicate position on the question of Aristide's resignation, because he was democratically elected and U.S. forces restored him to power 10 years ago after he was ousted in a coup. The administration also doesn't want to encourage the idea that governments can be toppled by the pressure of mobs.
But its language Saturday signaled that the administration has moved closer to the position of the French, who assert that Aristide has undermined his legitimacy by anti-democratic actions, and should resign.
Leaders of the mainstream political opposition, who share the rebels' insistence that Aristide resign but condemn their use of violence, saw the step back from Friday's bloody mayhem as a chance for diplomacy to do its part in encouraging Aristide's departure.
"It's always better to give way to a political process, a solution, rather than have a confrontation that causes more blood to spill. But Mr. Aristide must stop the terror he is entertaining in the capital of Port-au-Prince," said Andre Apaid, a prominent businessman and opposition figure. He noted that the international community has said it would not deal with any faction that came to power here by force.
Philippe and his rebel contingent, made up of provincial muscle once loyal to Aristide and returned exile soldiers of the disbanded Haitian National Army, have said they will lay down their arms as soon as Aristide resigns. They contend they want nothing in return other than reconstitution of a professional army.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made calls Saturday to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, as diplomats continued their efforts. The Canadians prepared to move three Hercules cargo aircraft to Haiti for possible use to evacuate nationals, but U.S. officials announced no similar preparations.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said he was confident that the United States would have the resources for an evacuation if it became necessary.
He noted that Pentagon officials have signaled that they are reviewing military options, saying they are weighing how they might send ships, Army paratroopers or Marines if needed.
Who would take power after Aristide and how a transition would be guided are questions in need of negotiation among the remaining political forces and the international community. A diplomatic shift has occurred in the last three days as foreign mediators appear to have been swayed by Aristide's opponents that leaving him to serve out the remaining two years of his presidency is unacceptable to most Haitians.
Although beloved when elected in 1990, Aristide is now widely resented for dashing fervent hopes of lifting this country out of the misery, repression and corruption that have defined it throughout its 200 years of independence.
Haiti's Constitution calls for the chief justice of the Supreme Court to fill any presidential vacancy, to be sworn in by the National Assembly and charged with organizing elections within three months. But all political factions except Aristide's Lavalas Party, which has a monopoly on power, contend that a major reform of this nation's institutions is necessary before credible elections can be held, requiring a temporary government for as long as two years.
The National Assembly broke down after opposition groups boycotted elections last year and lawmakers' terms expired.
The high court chief justice, Aristide ally Boniface Alexandre, would not be a welcome successor in the eyes of most opposition members, said Hanns Tippenhauer, a financial analyst and activist with the Democratic Platform uniting more than 300 opposition political parties, unions, cultural groups and social organizations.
Mischa Gaillard, another leading opposition figure, said the Platform would prefer to submit a list of three or four members of the high court for foreign mediators to consider.
To discourage self-interest in the interim presidency and advisory councils, the proposed transition formula would disqualify any members of those bodies from running for the presidency or high government office.
The opposition plan, unveiled in December, calls for a nine-member Council of Sages to advise the interim government. It would be made up of representatives from the teachers syndicate, media, business cooperatives, women's organizations, laborers, peasants, grass-roots movements, professional societies and the voodoo sector. In consultation with the interim president, the council would choose a prime minister and with that head of government seat a nonpartisan Cabinet.
Williams reported from Port-au-Prince and Richter from Washington.