Los Angeles Times
February 29, 2004

Aristide's Supporters See a Friend of the Poor

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Their attire of choice is T-shirts and other casual wear, their weapons chrome-plated pistols jammed in their belts and police billy clubs. If Jean-Bertrand Aristide manages to survive as Haiti's president, it may be thanks to these armed toughs who now effectively control the streets of the capital.

Although this Caribbean nation has been in the throes of an armed rebellion for three weeks, although the average Haitian is still the poorest denizen of the Americas, some of these partisans say they are sticking with Aristide because things could be much worse.

"The reason we're ready to die for Aristide is that he is the only one able to bring us a better future," Harry "Junior" Rejouis, the 30-year-old leader of the gang that is now master of one Port-au-Prince traffic circle, said Saturday. "His opponents want to put us back, not take us forward. But why should it always be their children who go abroad to university, and not us?"

"If Aristide leaves now, the country will fall into an abyss," said Wilbert Joseph, one of a score of underlings on duty with Rejouis. When a coup forced Aristide from power in 1991, Joseph said, soldiers burned down his house, and he tried in vain to reach the United States but was interned at the Guantanamo base in Cuba and sent back.

What does the muscular 38-year-old want now? "No more running away."

For Haitians, the bands of pro-Aristide thugs are known as chimeres, a Creole word that refers to a mythical monster but denotes frustrated children in an ugly mood. Largely products of this country's squalid slums, and said by one unconfirmed Haitian estimate to number 15,000, they may be the most powerful institution, official or otherwise, still in the president's hands.

Aristide's opponents blame them for functioning as political goon squads, attacking opposition rallies, carrying out slayings, staging kidnappings and wringing money from businesses by extortion.

"Aristide has lost the provinces, and in Port-au-Prince, he has lost the students, the intellectuals, the shopkeepers, the industrialists, the small-scale merchants," said Laennec Hurbon, a Haitian sociologist and critic of the president. "Where is his popularity lately? It's among the chimeres. But though they may be from the common people, the common people hate them."

But chimeres such as Rejouis say they owe a lot to Aristide. Raised by a poor single mother, Rejouis said he was one of the first children helped by a humanitarian organization that Aristide created in the slums of Port-au-Prince in his early years as a socially crusading Roman Catholic priest. Thanks to the boost from Aristide, Rejouis now speaks very good French the hallmark of a good education in Haiti. He also learned the professions of forklift driver and theater producer.

And he is grateful.

When asked how things in Haiti could be worse four-fifths of the people already live below the poverty line, and average life expectancy is barely 51 Rejouis pointed toward the hills of Petionville, home to some of Haiti's wealthiest citizens.

"They have millions, and they want to put us into slavery," said Rejouis, who wore mirrored sunglasses, a gray short-sleeved shirt and a Washington Redskins knit cap. He offered a visitor a late-morning swig of rum after sprinkling the first drops from the bottle on the ground in what he said was a voodoo ritual to honor his ancestors.

Rolande Bonhomme, 29, the only woman in the group, said, "We want peace. And we're not criminals."

Few nations in the hemisphere have a more tumultuous history than Haiti, which won independence from France two centuries ago in a slave revolt and has been prey to political violence since.

Some Haitians who are not members of the chimeres said Saturday that they preferred to allow Aristide to serve out his full term for fear that his departure in the face of armed rebels and an active opposition movement would beget even more chaos.

"The president hasn't done anything for us, but he must stay in power for five years," said Wilson Gustave, 19, who is unemployed. "If he doesn't, there will be a lot of violence in the country, and we may have to flee into the forest, into the mountains."

For some backers of the besieged head of state, the fact that his skin is as dark as theirs was a factor in their continuing allegiance.

"Aristide is the only Haitian and one of the few people we trust," said Joseph, the chimere. "All the future governments of this country must be negres."

"The mulattos [the Haitian minority of mixed race] are against Aristide, and are working to overthrow him and do very bad things to the country," said Kenky Pierre, 18, who does odd jobs in Petionville.

Pierre, who ran away from his home in the city of Gonaives nine years ago, survives by earning the equivalent of a dollar or two a day by helping people move or running errands. He hadn't eaten anything by noontime Saturday, he said, and had no immediate prospects of work.

With his own lot so grim, why was he still supporting Aristide? "I've seen on television that he has done a lot for the poor," the young man said. "I saw on television once that when a man told the president during rainy season that his roof leaked, the president said the problem would be taken care of and that the man and his family wouldn't suffer anymore."