Tuesday, October 16, 2018
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End of the Aristide myth
Jane Regan
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Once seen as a savior, Haiti’s president is now the target of massive, angry protests.

During his 1990 presidential campaign, it was not uncommon to see thousands of Haitians carrying the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, through the streets on their shoulders, singing and chanting, "Together, together we are the cleansing flood (lavalas)!" Millions of Haitians considered Aristide, founder of the Lavalas party, their savior.

Twelve years later, crowds are turning out to demand Aristide’s resignation — and more. In the streets, demonstrators chant, "Judge Aristide in a people’s court!" "Aristide, president of the thugs!" and "Aristide, we are hungry and exhausted!" and cheer former Army officers. Angry men, women and children trample fliers bearing Aristide’s photo while bystanders drink toasts to them.

Although discontent has been building for months, the first major anti-Aristide march was held on Nov. 17 in the northern coastal town of Cap-Haïtien, on the eve of the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Vertières, the last major event in the Haitian slave revolution. It followed two student marches in the capital that drew thousands. At the Vertières monument, thousands of people cheered speakers from opposition parties that used to struggle to attract a crowd of a hundred.

"At the feet of our ancestors, we pledge to combat all forms of dictatorship!" shouted Evans Paul, a former Aristide ally and mayor of Port-au-Prince during Aristide’s first term. Aristide, who was ousted by a coup in 1991, was returned to office in 1995. He was elected to a second term in 2000 (LP, Dec. 11, 2000).

Former Col. Himmler Rebu, who headed the now-disbanded Haitian Army’s special forces, was also there, beaming under accolades. Absent from the political scene since leading an abortive coup attempt in 1989, for which he was arrested, Rebu was not in the Army when it overthrew Aristide in 1991.

The Vertières demonstration, which drew more than 15,000 protesters, was the largest ever against Aristide — and the biggest for or against anything since Aristide’s 1990 presidential campaign. "We’re tired of Lavalas. We’re hungry and prices just keep going up," said Roger Jean-Charles as he watched the marchers pass by, some dressed in their Sunday best. "I voted for Aristide, but now I regret it."

While Aristide still has followers in the countryside, people in cities and towns have overcome apathy and fear and have taken to the streets, sometimes led by opposition politicians but often on their own.

In the southern coastal town of Petit-Goâve, where a pro-Aristide mob hacked journalist Brignol Lindor to death a year ago because Aristide opponents had been guests on his radio show, students marched on Nov. 20 to protest an increase in exam fees. When they massed at the police station, officers opened fire, wounding at least seven students. Lavalas claimed that opposition members had infiltrated the march, but human rights groups and most journalists rejected that version of events.

The Petit-Goâve incident was followed by demonstrations in other cities, and there were other attacks on protesters by police and Aristide supporters. At least a dozen people were injured on Dec. 3 in Port-au-Prince and several other cities when Aristide backers attacked demonstrators who were demanding Aristide’s resignation and justice in the Lindor case.

Lavalas — which has been reduced to a small number of government employees, politicians and a few hundred supporters, some of whom are armed — has organized its own shows of force. On Nov. 22, thugs blockaded the capital with burning barricades, sometimes with the help of people driving state vehicles. Only journalists and official vehicles were allowed to circulate.

Outrage from business associations, opposition parties, human rights groups and the Organization of American States (OAS) was so strong that in the following days, the party switched to rallies and marches. They have never drawn more than a few thousand people, however, and their slogans — such as, "If Aristide’s not here, who will replace him?" — indicate that the regime has run out of alternatives.

Meanwhile, violence has escalated. Seven radio journalists are in hiding and two stations have closed because of threats from pro-Aristide thugs. On Nov. 28, a Lavalas judge in Lascahobas, in eastern Haiti, was shot in the head as he swore to stand by Aristide to the death, according to one reporter. On the same day, in Gonaïves, on the northwestern coast, a mob of Aristide supporters known as the "Cannibal Army" (LP, Aug. 26, 2002) attacked an anti-Aristide march.

More than a dozen people, including high school students, have been wounded or killed since the Vertières march on Nov. 17.

On Nov. 28, after two weeks of silence, Aristide summoned the press to the National Palace, where he called for peace and said elections would be held as scheduled next year. "I will not leave office," he said. "A coup d’etat is not the solution to Haiti´s problems."

Many observers, however, question whether more promises and elections are the solution. Most Haitians are poorer now than they were a decade ago. During the past two years, the economy has shrunk and most foreign loans and aid have been blocked by governments and international agencies tired of the two-year feud between Lavalas and the opposition (LP, April 8, 2002).

Tales of drug deals and corruption also abound. While they are difficult to corroborate, most Haitians consider sumptuous cars and well-armed security personnel evidence that Lavalas has betrayed them.

"We struggled for democracy. We risked our lives during the coup. But then we saw our leaders run for office or receive jobs and line their pockets," said Ertha Charles, a teacher and former youth leader in the northern town of Pilate. "Many people are totally disillusioned about the ideas we had and the promises Aristide made. We are all worse off. Only a few opportunists, people who attached themselves to someone’s coattails, have jobs. The rest of us have nothing."

The recent demonstrations are a result of that frustration and the country’s multiple economic crises. Earlier this year, the collapse of a credit union pyramid scheme cost tens of thousands of Haitians their life’s savings, an estimated US$200 million (LP, Sept. 23, 2002). Many blamed Aristide, who, in his February 2001 inaugural speech, had urged people to put their money in credit unions.

That was followed by the sudden drop in the value of the Haitian gourde, fed by a rumor that bank accounts in US dollars — about one-third of all accounts — would be converted into gourdes. In just a few weeks in October, the gourde lost one-third of its value and about $50 million was withdrawn from banks.

On Nov. 4 the government missed the OAS deadline for a series of reforms, including establishing an electoral council and disarming the population (LP, Nov. 18, 2002). While the OAS, Lavalas and the US Embassy — an influential player in Haiti — continue to call for elections, many observers say balloting would be impossible now.

"The prospects of forming an electoral council and holding elections are dwindling," said Pierre Esperance of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, one of a dozen human rights organizations responsible for choosing a representative to the electoral council. "Lavalas is incapable of assuring the necessary climate of security."

Instead, opposition parties and some other sectors are calling for Aristide’s resignation and the formation of a transitional government that would oversee elections within the next year. The grassroots groups, peasant organizations and other leftist groups that helped bring Aristide to power 12 years ago have so far remained silent.


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