The Miami Herald
Sat, Feb. 28, 2004
Greater strife could fill a post-Aristide vacuum

As President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's hold on power grows more tenuous, the prospects for peace after a departure by him appear poor.


WASHINGTON - After President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, what?

If Haiti's president is forced out of power soon, as many predict, the level of violence and chaos that ultimately is seen in the country will depend on how he departs, whether his backers fight rebel groups, and whether his opposition quickly fragments, officials and policy experts say.

And the ''X'' factor is how rapidly and effectively some sort of peacekeeping force could restore minimal order, prevent reprisals and protect the transition to a new government.

''If Aristide's gangs fight, you're going to have a bloodbath, with innocents killed in the crossfire, and it's going to be live on CNN,'' said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, Friday at a forum on Haiti.

DeWine, who has made 14 trips to Haiti, called for the quick intervention of a military force with U.S. participation to stop spiraling violence.

Luigi Einaudi, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, lamented that there are ''too many fiefdoms with barricades and demands'' in Haiti, and that's a working definition of anarchy.

''Aristide lost control of the gangs long ago,'' Einaudi said. ``Why should anyone think they can be brought under control now? I see nothing but tragedy ahead.''

One policy analyst, Robert Maguire, who recently met with Aristide, said the president may try to stand and fight. But many experts and observers say his position is untenable.

''Aristide is toast. He's gone,'' said Tim Carney, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti. ``The only question is whether he goes out in a pine box or on an airplane.''


Robert Fatton, a longtime Haiti expert, agreed that if Aristide's supporters in the Port-au-Prince slums fight back, it could be bloody. If Aristide resigns and leaves without calling for revenge, there's a chance for a peaceful transition.

''The biggest gamble,'' Fatton said, is that the civic opposition has decided to ignore U.S. pressure, turn down a power-sharing plan and insist on Aristide's departure -- and then take their chances negotiating with armed rebels.

''It's bizarre that they are not willing to deal with an emasculated Aristide under international pressure and instead deal with death squad leaders and others who are not likely to disarm,'' said Fatton, a University of Virginia professor and native of Haiti.

DeWine was more blunt: ``The opposition would not deal with Aristide, but do they think it will be any bed of roses dealing with thugs? They're crazy.''

But opposition leaders such as Ariel Henry of the Democratic Convergence said they will try to negotiate an agreement with the rebels, then seek a consensus for a transition government and new elections.

Henry warned that the longer the crisis continues, the more difficult it will be for Haiti to return to stability.

Opposition groups will try to follow the Haitian Constitution and agree on a transition president -- but not the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, as designated by the constitution, because he is an Aristide appointee.

The provisional president ''would be more like a consensus builder, nothing more than that,'' said Gervais Charles, an attorney and leading figure in the opposition Democratic Platform.


A peaceful transition will be threatened by several realities: Armed groups may not disarm, Aristide's Lavalas party may be excluded or lie low, and any unity in the opposition may dissolve once Aristide goes.

''The only thing that unites them now is their visceral, personal hatred of Aristide,'' Fatton said.

Maguire, a professor at Trinity College in Washington who met opposition leaders in December, said any transition must include some of Aristide's backers.

''It's critical that Lavalas be given a place, some role in the future, because they're a significant force, and they're not going away,'' Maguire said.

James Dobbins, special envoy to Haiti after Aristide was restored to power in 1994, said only outside groups could run the next vote to ensure fairness and public trust.

And he warned that it will take a greater U.S. effort to protect Haiti's future than either the Clinton or Bush administrations have been willing to make.

''The lesson in this crisis for U.S. policy is that we need a larger and longer commitment to have a meaningful impact,'' said Dobbins, a RAND Corp. security analyst who has worked to revive failed states.