Haitians' growing discontent with Aristide may force U.S. to act
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The two times President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti took office since 1991, euphoric supporters filled the streets singing praises for a charismatic priest who was supposed to rescue them from the embrace of misery.
Armed with shovels, rakes, brooms and paintbrushes, they spruced
up buildings, walls and facades to welcome their beloved leader with shouts
of ''Viv Titid'' or ''Long
live Titid,'' an affectionate nickname.
Many of those supporters and their children still sing during demonstrations. But the lyrics have changed.
``For years now we've been in misery . . . It's still the same thing. Down, down, down with Aristide.''
A series of blunders during the past two years have unleashed
a powerful wave of anti-government sentiment that threatens to dismantle
Aristide's popular base. As the majority of Haitians grow increasingly
weary of living in squalor, the president's dwindling political stature
could set in motion a chain of events that would force the
United States to take action, observers say.
The dilemma facing policymakers is to determine the ''way to stability,'' said James Morrell, executive director of the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based think tank. ``Something has really changed in Haiti. The divine mandate is over.''
Among the contributing factors spreading discontent across the Caribbean nation:
• A cooperative pyramid scheme that has affected large segments
of the middle class. Traditionally, cooperatives in Haiti pool member resources
to invest in farming,
fishing and housing with revolving loan accounts generally offering a 4 percent annual rate of return. But cooperatives that arose during the past three years, offering
rates of at least 10 percent, are on the brink of collapse amid allegations they were used to launder drug money, costing investors $200 million;
• A fuel shortage that has reduced electrical service to as little
as three hours a day. Tapped-out fueling stations recently bumped up the
price of fuel on the black
market and crippled transportation and deliveries of food and other supplies to outlying areas;
• A stalemate in negotiations for an accord between the government
and its opposition, which would help dislodge millions of dollars in international
aid. The May 2000
elections, swept by Aristide's Lavalas Family party, were fraught with irregularities and cries of voter fraud. The dispute is over how many seats the opposition should
hold in the Haitian parliament;
• Widespread corruption and an ill-equipped police force of less than 3,000 officers for a nation of more than 8 million.
''The prospects simply aren't good,'' said Steve Horblitt, a
political scientist and longtime analyst of U.S.-Haiti relations. ``The
government of Haiti continues its long
history of not being a provider of services but an extractor.
''What happens in Haiti affects the United States,'' said Horblitt, who works for Creative Associates International Inc., a Washington consulting firm. ``This administration needs to have a real clear reexamination of policy. The U.S. can help Haiti, but it can't help without a partner there. We need to be very clear about our interests and our principles and we need to make it clear to that gentleman [Aristide] that we're not playing.''
By the end of the month, parents who are already strapped financially
will be faced with the costs of sending their children back to school.
And a budget crunch may
mean no money to pay teachers.
''Haiti is always like a fire waiting for a spark to set it off,''
said a Western diplomat. ``The next days will be telling to see how much
momentum is generating from this
''There is a simmering situation,'' said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``There is more political tension than there has been in awhile.''
`STOLEN OUR MONEY!'
Violent episodes have left more than a dozen people dead, forced
journalists into hiding or exile and dragged the Organization of American
States into the internal
turmoil with an investigation into a Dec. 17 attack on the National Palace that contradicted the government's claim of a failed coup attempt.
But the most dramatic event was an Aug. 2 jailbreak in Gonaives
that marked the first time in which Haiti's poor -- the core of Aristide's
support -- backed calls by two
well-known fugitives for Aristide's removal.
Since then, acts of defiance have been reported in several places
including L'estere, Port-de-Paix, St. Marc, Petit-Goave and Cap-Haitien.
Last week, striking
longshoremen in Port-au-Prince built flaming tire barricades on the seaside boulevard, threatening to block the capital port until they are paid a traditional back-to-school
''The government has stolen our money!'' demonstrators shouted.
About 80 percent of Haitian education is in private hands, and school fees
have followed the trend in
inflation, which has increased almost 90 percent in six years.
''We want the whole international community to understand that
Aristide was behind a lot of the bad things that have happened in this
country,'' said Edmond Saintil, 28,
a leader of one of several political organizations in Raboteau, a shanty town in Gonaives and former Aristide stronghold. ``Is the international community going to help
us or are they going to let us die?''
STOKING THE COALS
Aristide, whose rise to power began with Haiti's liberation theology movement, was able to galvanize public support by offering a dream of a Haiti with an economy with jobs for all; a security force that would rid the streets of armed thugs; and government programs that would reduce the number of children who go to sleep hungry.
But he has been unable to deliver on any of these promises because
of his failure to overcome the unending political intrigue. The unresolved
dispute with the opposition
damaged Haiti's international standing, obliging foreign governments to withdraw offers of aid that Aristide could have used to re-ignite the economy.
Inside the country, a number of incidents during his tenure have
damaged Aristide's reputation, but the public outcry by former supporters
wasn't evident until the
Gonaives jailbreak in which 159 prisoners escaped.
One of the fugitives, longtime Aristide opponent and convicted
murderer Jean Tatoune, has faded into the background and his whereabouts
are unknown. Another
escapee, Amiot ''Cubain'' Metayer, remains in Gonaives. But he is no longer calling for Aristide's ouster and now has a team of lawyers for a defense that will likely
include a request for amnesty on charges of his involvement in the Dec. 17 palace attack.
However, his original call for the replacement of Aristide seemed
to strike a chord with many of his countrymen. There appears to be no way
for Aristide to regain his
''I don't agree with violent methods, burning tires and buildings,
that is not democratic,'' said Victor Benoit, a leader with an opposition
multi-party alliance known as
Democratic Convergence. ``But Metayer started something by saying that Aristide needs to leave. These words are significant and strong to most of the opposition
parties in the country.''
One measure of the discontent is the continuing wave of migrants
desperate to get out of Haiti at any cost. Bahamian authorities have picked
up about 2,500 Haitian
migrants this year, at least twice as many as all of last year. Fearing more will flee political unrest, the Royal Bahamian Defense Force has stepped up patrols around
Inagua, a popular drop-off point.
For many, the dream of improving their lives by staying home has vanished.
''Things have been getting worse day to day,'' said an elderly shopkeeper in Cap-Haitien who declined to give his name. ``Those who don't have work don't eat.''
Nearby, a scrawny teenager who hauls merchandise on a wheelbarrow to earn money to help his family, sat pondering during a short break.
Asked what he was thinking, Michele Jean Pierre replied: ``What's going to happen to my country.''
This report was supplemented by information from The Associated Press.