South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 29, 2004

Aristide leaves Haiti, new official to be sworn in as president

By Tim Collie

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide suddenly resigned and flew into exile early Sunday, triggering a widespread rampage of shootings, lootings and apparent political reprisals in the country's besieged capital city.

Flanked by the U.S. and French ambassadors, Supreme Court Justice Boniface Alexandre said he was assuming the presidency under the country's constitutional rite of succession. U.S. Ambassador James Foley insisted that that the United States had not forced Aristide's resignation, but said that international troops would be in Haiti shortly to rebuild the country's police and security services.

Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president, faced a rebel insurgency that controlled about half the country, as well as a formidable political opposition made up of the country's wealthy business leaders, grassroots groups and disaffected former allies. Although the capital has been the scene of chaotic looting and shooting for two days, there had been little indication that Aristide would step down as late as Saturday night.

Prime Minister Yvon Neptune held a press conference in the capital city to report that Aristide had resigned to avoid bloodshed, but even as he spoke gunfire could be heard throughout the city. A short while later, police forces guarding the prime minister's residence said it had been destroyed by hundreds of anti-Aristide partisans.

"It is indeed a very dangerous moment for Haiti and the Haitian people," said Neptune, calling on all sides of Haiti's fractious political culture to drop their arms. "President Aristide wanted it otherwise, but unfortunately it didn't happen that way. The president stepped down to avoid bloodshed."

Now that Aristide has left the scene, Foley said, a multi-pronged plan to rebuild the country's institutions will be launched. The first step will be appointing a panel of distinguished Haitians to usher in a new prime minister and interim government.

"President Aristide made a decision for the good of the Haitian people," Foley said. "International military forces including U.S. forces will be rapidly arriving in Haiti to begin to restore a sense of security."

As news of Aristide's departure began spreading just after dawn, residents of the capital voiced anger, hope and fear over what will happen next. In many neighborhoods spontaneous celebrations triggered by news of Aristide's resignation erupted just blocks from where armed, pro-government militants mounted violent protests and outbursts.

Angry Aristide supporters -- many younger than 16 years of age -- roamed the streets armed with old rifles, pistols, machetes and sticks. Some chimère militants clambered onto pickup trucks, firing wildly into crowds on the Champs de Mars, the main square in front of the National Palace, as they roared past crowds of Haitian residents. Looters also attacked a police station in Petionville, an upscale suburb in the hills above the capital, carting away police hats, T-shirts, helmets and other parts of police uniforms.

On several major thoroughfares, barricades constructed of burning tires sent up walls of thick, black smoke along streets and rising up over the city. Aristide supporters drove up and added tires to fuel the fire.

In front of the country's National Palace, dozens of young men angrily gathered waiting for the national flag to be raised. When it didn't happen, they began screaming at journalists.

"Is it true he left?" one man asked, refusing to give his name. "If Aristide has left we're going to reduce this country to ash. We're going to burn it to the ground and chase down the bourgeoisie and burn them in their homes. They'll all be hiding in holes."

As the national flag was raised just before 9 a.m., automatic weapons fire spontaneously erupted on the streets surrounding the palace. A group of militants, who are known here as chimère, started shooting up a gas station, apparently assuming it was owned by a businessman aligned against Aristide. Other looters pillaged supermarkets and pharmacies.

"We're going to burn all these gas stations down, every one," explained another young man, who refused to give his name. "All of these are owned by the rich. They took our president, so now we're going to take everything of theirs."

Downtown, many Haitians were assaulted, guns pointed in their faces, and equipment stolen from businesses. Many were forced to flee into nearby hotels to avoid being stoned.

But elsewhere, there were celebrations. In front of the prime minister's official residence, about 30 ordinary Haitians gathered to tell foreign journalists how happy they are at the day's historic developments.

"This guy was the devil and I cannot believe he is finally gone," said Harald Predestino, 33, an unemployed accountant, referring to Aristide. "Now we have to get rid of the rest of this, including this corrupt prime minister of ours. All these people just took took took and lived like kings while the rest of us starved. Now it's time for them to get theirs."

Jacky Jones, who runs a tourist-oriented souvenir shop on John Brown Avenue, danced and celebrated with a group of men and women. Like several street side merchants, his shop had been destroyed in what officials had labeled a clean-up campaign. But Jones said it was a reprisal from competing shop owners who paid corrupt police officers to drive him away.

"For me, it's like Christmas," Jones beamed. "It's Christmas day. Look at how they destroyed the top of my store, and they said I was going to be reimbursed. People outside of Haiti don't understand how lawless this regime was, how corrupt. Now this Aristide is gone. I'm just so happy."

Aristide's departure marks the second time he has been driven from office before completing a presidential term. A former slum priest who rose to power as an opposition leader during the last years of 30-year Duvalier dictatorship, Aristide has survived numerous attempts on his life. After being elected in 1990, he was overthrown just seven months later in military coup d'etat in 1991. He was restored to power three years later, in 1994, by a U.S.-led invasion.

He was elected to a second term in 2000, but faced widespread allegations of corruption and inciting political violence and international donors froze millions of dollars in aid. For three years, the United States, its allies and international lenders have withheld aid to Haiti over allegations of crooked balloting in November, 2000, parliamentary elections. In the meantime, economic, environmental and political conditions deteriorated in Haiti, rendering the nation the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

On Feb. 5, a group of former Aristide militants known launched an anti-government rebellion from Gonaïves, Haiti's fourth largest city, about 110 kilometres northwest of Port-au-Prince. That triggered a series of uprisings that quickly swept across the northern part of the country, overtaking more than a dozen cities. More than 100 people have been killed in the insurgency. As rebels advanced on Port-au-Prince, and more moderate political opponents urged Aristide to resign, the former president elected to flee the country early Sunday.

Tens of thousands of citizens throughout Haiti had marched in peaceful demonstrations over the last five months calling for Aristide's resignation. On Saturday, U.S. President George W. Bush had suggested that the embattled President step down for the good this nation, where more than 80 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. On Sunday, Foley said he was confident that leaders of the popular rebellion that helped force Aristide's departure would lay down their arms.

"I do think we saw a certain willingness on their part to allow an orderly transition," he said.

Foley raised the prospect of a major rebuilding of Haiti's police force, and possibly other institutions."I think it's very clear that what happened a decade ago here didn't work, and that the Haitian people didn't benefit," Foley said. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned and I think the international community has recognized that. We're ready to apply some of those lessons."

Opposition leaders, for their part, cheered Aristide's resignation. But there were hints of dissension on the horizon.

The opposition movement, aligned in an umbrella group known as the Democratic Platform, is a large, ungainly collection of dozens of political parties, commercial groups and trade unions that span the Haitian political spectrum from right to left. They include former military leaders, coup plotters, Marxists and far-right religious groups. All that united them was a desire to see Aristide leave.

"It's great for the country, the best thing that could have happened," said Charles Baker, a leader of a coalition known as the Group of 184. "That's what we've been waiting for. Now we're partying. Then we'll get back to work."

But student leader Josue Vaval, a key member of the opposition, said he was troubled by military intervention that he described as "occupation."

"Obviously we're very happy about what has happened, but we are against occupation and we don't want foreign troops here," said Vaval. "I can understand that the situation is very dangerous, but occupation is never a good thing. The Haitian people need to resolve these questions for themselves."

Dr. Jean Buteau, another opposition leader, said Haitians had only themselves to blame.

"We're rid of this guy now, but we have to accept the fact that it was the irresponsibility of our politicians that got us in this mess. I don't like the idea of foreign troops coming here either, but there are so many guns now out on the streets we need to get rid of them. We need the help of the international community to clean up this mess."

Tim Collie can be reached at or 954-356-4573.

Copyright © 2004