In Haiti, Two Sides and Bloodshed Between
Political Crisis Deepens as President's Supporters, Opposition Trade Accusations
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 2 -- The fear of death has run through the streets like the dirty water. At least 47 Haitians have been killed in recent months, officials report, and dozens injured. In one case, a man's heart and eyes were carved out by assailants to show he had seen too much.
Anti-government protesters have burned tires and hurled rocks, demanding that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resign. His supporters have fought back, chanting, "Aristide! Five years!"
Inside the grand white presidential palace, Aristide, the former priest on whom thousands of poor Haitians hung their hopes, called on Friday for an end to the killing. Beside him sat the wife of Lyonel Victor, 27, a pro-government protester who was killed two days earlier by a police tear gas canister that pierced his chest.
"It is a horrible thing that happened," Aristide told Victor's family and the masses beyond the palace during a broadcast news conference. "The whole country is tired of death and lies. The whole country condemns all the killings, the whole country condemns the pain. The fight for power shouldn't bring us to death."
But in Haiti, nothing is as it seems. In this poor country of about 8 million people, where voodoo is considered a national religion and some people believe in mermaids and that the dead walk the streets, the political situation is mired in complexities. There are shades of meaning in a simple handshake and twists of the truth in the flash of a smile. Even those killed in the violence are sometimes claimed by both sides in the crisis.
What is clear is that tension has been mounting between those who support Aristide and those who oppose him. The political crisis has deepened as a coalition of opposition parties and businessmen has called for the ouster of Aristide, who returned to office in 1994 with U.S. government backing following a 1991 military coup. He was reelected president in 2000.
At the palace, Aristide, wearing a black suit and his trademark gold wire-framed glasses, defended his administration. He said he will not resign and will serve the last two years of his term.
"We will have elections and security," he said in an interview, seated next to the Haitian flag, his portrait hanging above his head. "Without elections, there is no way to have peace," Aristide said. "I think it's linked to a simple one-man, one-woman vote."
Aristide said opponents are trying to destabilize the country because they realize his government still has majority support.
"In Haiti we still have political parties and citizens not ready to embrace democracy. Why do they refuse to go to elections? They fear that simple and important principle: one man, one vote. I think we are all equal. I think the peasant and the rich man are all equal."
Aristide's opponents contend that the president has squandered opportunities for reform, that his government is corrupt and surrounded by thugs who commit murder to hold on to power. They criticize Aristide for failing to raise the country's majority out of poverty, to improve literacy rates or to deliver one of the basic necessities of life, clean water. Critics say the country is still riddled with widespread corruption, injustice, human rights violations, unemployment and hunger. They accuse Aristide and his Lavalas Party of creating gangs to threaten anti-government protesters and kill anti-government activists.
"Aristide, when he came back, he had a tremendous opportunity," said Andre Apaid Jr., a U.S.-born opposition leader. "But rather than behave as an assembler, he kept being more preoccupied about how to build a machine to prolong his power."
The political crisis escalated on Jan. 12, when the country's parliament ceased operating after most legislative terms expired. Squabbling prevented an agreement on new election procedures, leaving the country with no functioning legislature. Since then, marches have grown.
The opposition -- the Democratic Convergence and the Group of 184, made up of students, business people and some of the country's wealthy elite -- has called for a group of "wise men" to run the country. "Since parliament is dissolved, we are calling for nine wise men who will choose the prime minister until the next election," said Apaid, who coordinates the Group of 184.
After returning from a Caribbean Community meeting in Jamaica over the weekend, Aristide said he would agree to meet with opponents and take steps for the safety of demonstrators. "As civilized people," he said, "we agree with each other in building the rule of law."
Government supporters charge that the leaders of the 1991 coup that ousted Aristide are behind the current opposition. "Some of the old coup leaders are involved," said a government source. "The elite run everything. They control everything. They paid for the coup in 1991. They paid money to the military to make the payroll after the coup."
'He Promised Too Much'
Aristide was once called Haiti's savior. His message of peace and empowerment for the poor eventually led to the ouster of the Duvalier family that controlled the country for decades. Aristide was voted president in 1990, the first freely elected chief of state. But he was forced into exile 10 months later. There was widespread rejoicing when Aristide returned to Haiti, protected by U.S. troops, after four years of exile.
"So many people believed in him," said Jean H. Laurenceau, 50, a business manager. "The problem is, President Aristide will promise you God when God is not even his friend. That is why he is in trouble. He promised too much and has never done what he promised."
Aristide's followers blame failed support by the United States and European countries for many of the country's problems. The U.S.-backed decision to freeze $500 million in international loans to Haiti after disputed legislative elections in 2000 has hurt the country, government officials said. In July, after Haiti paid $32 million in debt, some of the loans were released, but government officials said they have not yet received any disbursements. U.S. officials acknowledge that Haiti needs the loans to develop its infrastructure, but express concern that aid may be misspent.
"This is clearly a country facing overwhelming problems: agriculture, environment, urban blight and disease. It is an afflicted country and an afflicted people," a U.S. diplomat said. "However, for the international community to be able to help address these problems, it needs a partner in the government of Haiti committed to the rule of law."
Government officials here also charge that the Bush administration supports the opposition. The diplomat said: "The United States stands for democratic principles in Haiti. The Haitian government's corruption of the police and the egregious use of street gangs must change as a predicate for improving the relationship with the international community."
Jonas Petit, head of the Lavalas Party, says the United States is practicing economic blackmail. "Nobody can understand this situation," Petit said in an interview. "We are talking about the most powerful and richest country in the world against the poorest country in the hemisphere."
Government supporters charge that opposition leaders do not have a plan to improve Haiti. But opposition leaders counter that they are protesting because there is too much corruption to wait two years for the next scheduled presidential election.
"Aristide is a disguised dictator," said Evans Paul, a former ally who turned against Aristide and has now become an outspoken leader of the opposition Convention for Democratic Unity. "Because he is running this country so badly, every day he stays in power is catastrophic for the country," Paul said. "Aristide is known as a man who never keeps his word. Nobody can trust him."
Paul, who describes himself as coming from a modest family, is a former journalist, former mayor of Port-au-Prince and a playwright. He smiled, but did not answer directly when asked whether he was a leader in the opposition. "That is what they say out there," he said. "In Haiti, the leader is the one most listened to by the people." Paul charged that the murders of government supporters had been staged by the Aristide government, and that none had been committed by the opposition.
"Haiti is a confused country because the information is so manipulated mostly with the government," Paul said.
A rooster crowed outside Paul's office, where rifle-toting guards were on patrol. A breeze was blowing as the city grew dark. The mountains turned black against a gray Caribbean sky. Peasants could be seen walking up a hill balancing loads of supplies on their heads.
'Too Much Bloodshed!'
In another part of the city, a funeral march wound past the chaotic street traffic, as vendors sold used car parts, toothbrushes and cigarettes. Graffiti reading "Viva Aristide pou 5 An," or "Long Live Aristide -- 5 Years," were scrawled on buildings in blue and red spray paint. "Too much bloodshed!" the marchers chanted.
Some of the mourners were carrying a sign: Adieu Francis Pinchinat. Pinchinat, an Aristide supporter, was another victim of recent violence.
The concrete cemetery entrance was across a bridge over a ravine flooded with garbage and bluish gray water, in which two boys upstream were bathing. The mourners hesitated to carry their friend through the gates of death, then rushed suddenly forward, circling the coffin, singing and crying. Finally, they crossed the bridge, walked to the grave site and lowered the coffin into the ground. Some mourners then pulled out guns and fired into the air, not worrying where the bullets eventually would fall.
Ernst Vilsaint, a local official, stood at the grave and described the details of Pinchinat's death. "Francis was riding in a car with two other government officials when protesters recognized the government officials and shot into the car," he said. Two men with Vilsaint, one also an official, opened their shirts to show their wounds. He said the attackers were on the lookout for Aristide supporters. "If they notice somebody in the party, they shoot at the car," he said.
"The president is asking for peace," Vilsaint said. "We want the president to stay five years. You can't kill a whole nation who is asking for elections."
In the interview, Aristide said the problem is that he needs more time to reverse decades of abuse and entrenched poverty.
"We are a young democracy," he said. "Sometimes, mistakes happen. They will have to be corrected." Aristide acknowledged that people remain poor, but he said things are better than they were under the military that overthrew him. "Today they have misery, but not that kind of misery of the army killing them."