Supporters of Haitian President Block Opponents' Peaceful Protest
Authorities allow gangs to attack and intimidate political foes, defying warnings from abroad.
By Carol J. Williams
Times Staff Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Supporters of beleaguered President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide erected barricades and hurled rocks at political opponents Thursday,
thwarting a peaceful demonstration and defying warnings from U.S. and Caribbean leaders that Aristide's legitimacy was at stake if he blocked the protest.
Haiti's police withdrew to their stations or stood by as gangs of so-called
chimeres — Creole for "monsters" — fired pistols and stoned anti-Aristide
wounding at least three.
Leaders of the island nation's main opposition groups called off the
march, saying they refused to be drawn into a violent confrontation. The
rescheduled for Sunday.
Aristide's decision to do nothing to discourage armed thugs from menacing
the opposition appeared grounded in a calculation that neither the United
States nor the
rest of the international community has the will to make him comply with demands to respect his opponents' rights.
Aristide showed that he successfully hobbled his opponents by forcing them to choose between clashing with the chimeres or stifling their own voices.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, sent a conflicting signal to Haiti.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
remained the elected president despite a rebel insurrection that has claimed at least 50 lives in northern and western Haiti.
"The policy of the administration is not regime change," Powell said,
two days after State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Aristide
undertake deep reforms to meet democratic standards and that resolution of the current crisis might involve his stepping down.
"We will be discussing with the Canadians and Caricom [the Caribbean
Community bloc] nations whether or not they are in a position to provide
police support to
the government in order to bring these disturbing situations under control," Powell said.
Opposition leaders said they were being cast as culprits in the bloody
uprising afflicting a dozen towns and cities, where armed rebels — some
of them former
Aristide supporters — have taken over police stations and other public vestiges of power.
"In the propaganda of the government, we are being painted as a violent
opposition," said Andre Apaid, a businessman and activist within the Group
of 184 civil
He called on the U.S. to recognize that Aristide has no intention of
following democratic principles. Ignoring the violence in Haiti would make
it more difficult to
contain later, Apaid said.
"We want the United States to play the role of facilitator of a peaceful
outcome," Apaid said, insisting that Washington's wait-and-see attitude
threatens to let the
conflict escalate. "If the United States fails to act now, intervention will become more costly, the violence will be more drastic, and the political consequences will be
more disastrous in an election year."
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been beset
by a political and economic crisis since Aristide's Lavalas Party was accused
monitors of manipulating a May 2000 parliamentary vote. Opposition candidates boycotted the presidential election six months later, allowing Aristide to win a
second term virtually unchallenged. After the disputed 2000 election, international donors froze millions of dollars in aid, further crippling the economy.
Since then, opposition protests and political activities have been routinely
crushed by the chimeres, who have been armed and deployed by Lavalas, according
In 1994, the U.S. launched a military intervention to restore Aristide to power, three years after the charismatic former priest was deposed in a military coup.
The latest uprising began last week when a former Lavalas gang that
had called itself the Cannibal Army incited an insurrection in the city
of Gonaives. Renaming
itself the Artibonite Resistance Front, the gang seized Gonaives and defended it against a government incursion Saturday, leaving more than a dozen policemen dead.
Other disgruntled groups in cities like St. Marc and Grand Goave launched
similar attacks on police and government facilities. But most of those
aimed at looting than holding power, have been quelled.
In the latest crisis, Washington has left mediation to the 15-nation
Caricom, of which Haiti is a member. A day before the uprising began in
Gonaives, a Caricom
delegation presented Aristide with a list of democratic reforms. The group said Aristide needed to show the international community that he was serious about
compromising with other political forces to hold elections that were scheduled for last year.
With most legislative deputies' mandates having expired last month,
the parliament has ceased to function and Aristide is left to rule by decree.
Aristide and some
international observers blame the opposition for scuttling the elections because the groups, protesting the government's use of force to break up their campaign
events, refused to participate in preelection planning.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Aristide pledged to honor the
democratic principles enumerated by Caricom. He cast himself as a champion
and said he was committed to peaceful resolution. He blamed the uprising on opposition groups.
The Group of 184 and Democratic Convergence, an alliance of political
parties pushing for an interim government of national unity, pointed to
their thwarted march
as fresh evidence that Aristide was a dictator with whom they cannot negotiate new elections.
"We hope that Caricom and the international community will see once
and for all that Aristide doesn't respect his own word," said Anthony Barbier,
director of the
Group of 184, which unites social organizations, unions, professionals, students and churches.
Evans Paul, another opposition leader and a former Port-au-Prince mayor,
warned neighboring countries of an imminent wave of desperate Haitians
taking to the
seas in search of political asylum unless the crisis was resolved soon.
"They are getting ready to see 50,000 people fleeing the country to
escape the violence," Paul said of reported preparations at the U.S. naval
base in Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, to shelter Haitian refugees. "They shouldn't be getting ready for 50,000 but for just one — Aristide."
Aristide said Wednesday that he had no intention of stepping down before his term expired in two years.
U.S. officials have wavered over how best to effect democratic change
in Haiti. Critics say Aristide has apparently concluded that Washington
was in no position to
insist on his compliance.
A senior U.S. diplomat here said Tuesday that Washington would be closely
watching Aristide's behavior toward political opponents and that no one
swayed by his attempts to "lump together" the armed rebels in Gonaives with the mainstream opposition.
"We have important interests in Haiti, that goes without saying. With
Haiti lying so close to our shores and in such distress, we have interests
and responsibilities," the
diplomat said, adding that "it is unlikely that a solution can be found without U.S. support."
At the Senate hearing, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) warned the Bush administration
against inaction. "Unless the United States actually is a convener, a leader,
trying to stop the violence and start bringing some kind of negotiated resolution, the place is going to be chaos," said Graham, whose state has the largest Haitian
American community and would bear the brunt of any exodus.