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Anarchy reigns
Jane Regan
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“Rebels” and angry Haitians are fighting in the streets for Aristide’s resignation.

Two weeks after a motley gang of thugs took over the police station in the port city of Gonaives, 50 people were dead, about half the country lacked police and several of the country’s major roads were blocked by barricades.

Haiti — the hemisphere’s poorest country which in its 200-year history of independence has already seen two US occupations, over 30 coup d’états and the lynching of presidents, soldiers and tyrants’ henchmen — is once again inching towards anarchy. Many, including the government, are hinting that only a foreign intervention can stop it.

Since being elected to his second term in 2000, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has faced a small but growing opposition movement as rights violations escalated and living conditions deteriorated.

Even if the president was not responsible for every summary execution or under-funded school, criticism from groups like Amnesty International grew more strident when institutions like the fledgling police force and the judicial system took on all the trappings of handmaidens. And Aristide’s open tolerance for the armed gangs who mobilized support for his rallies and openly harassed his critics caused continued and mounting consternation.

Still, the 50-year-old president and his government weathered the criticism, saying things like “We are working for peace” and promising to arrest the most offensive thugs.

But Aristide never fulfilled the promises he made the Organization of American States (OAS) over a year ago as part of a “road map” aimed at leading Haiti out of a three-year political impasse which stemmed from disputed elections. Many foreign donors held up or re-routed much needed aid pending a political compromise.

No compromise came. The government ignored the OAS laundry list and deadline after deadline. No disarmament, continued police repression, no investigations or arrests for political murders. In the meantime, the stubborn opposition stepped up the pressure and an armed group claiming to be ex-soldiers appeared near the border. Then a formerly pro-government gang in Gonaives changed camps.

But until early February, Aristide didn’t seem to be too concerned. “I will leave here on Feb. 7, 2006,” he told a CNN reporter on Feb. 4, the eve of the Gonaives rebellion.

The rebellion in Gonaives, 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital of Port-au-Prince, started more like a gang war victory over the local cops.

The gang, once called the Cannibal Army, was a rag-tag gaggle of mostly unemployed longshoremen who used to harass anyone not deemed sufficiently loyal to the president. But the group and their neighborhood — Raboteau, a desolate seaside Gonaives slum where most kids don’t go to school and where sugar water is as common a meal as cornmeal mush — turned on Aristide when Cannibal leader Amiot Métayer was found murdered in late September.

The Cannibals blamed the murder on the president, changed their name to the Artibonite Resistance Front and vowed to take their revenge all the way to the Palace.

Police were never able to quell their anger. Instead, their bloody and incompetent attacks on Raboteau fueled it. Over two months, police dressed as hooded, black-clad gunmen shot as many as ten innocent slum dwellers and torched shacks and shanties, including one where a 15-day-old infant was allegedly burned to death.

The gun-toting Cannibals were eventually joined by more seasoned thugs from Haiti’s dark past: former soldiers from the army which overthrew Aristide in 1991 and which he later disbanded, and a leader from the paramilitary militia which murdered hundreds during the three-year coup (1991-1994) period.

Two weeks after the Gonaives police station was attacked, the tallies were staggering.

Over 50 people have been shot, ambushed or lynched, including perhaps a dozen policemen. Assaults are now led by Louis-Jodel Chamblain, remembered as the co-leader of Front for the Advancement Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), the paramilitary group from the coup era later found to have clear links to the US Central Intelligence Agency. Some officers fell victims to peoples’ outrage over police brutality. In Gonaives, angry mobs dismembered and torched the bodies of at least four. Finally, part of the past two weeks body count is courtesy of pro-government gangs who have chased down government critics, shooting them and burning their homes.

Armed men have attacked or chased police away from police stations in perhaps half the country and now control the administrative centers of two of Haiti’s nine departments or provinces. About 25 towns are without policemen.

The main highways leading to four of Haiti’s nine departments, home to 2.4 million people, are blocked by barricades. Gasoline, medicines and other supplies cannot travel north and farmers’ produce cannot reach market towns or the capital. The result is dry gas pumps, closed factories and rotting produce. United Nations agencies have warned of an impending “humanitarian disaster” because food aid and other programs have shut down. Haiti’s only major tourism money earner — a Royal Caribbean cruise ship stops on the north coast — were also cancelled.

Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has blamed the rebellion on foreign governments that he said did not keep their promises to help Haiti and allowed drug dealers and other criminals to exploit its under-protected shores and borders. Haiti’s police force numbers only 5,000 for a population of 8 million and 28,000 square kilometers of territory.

But now, about ten years after a US military intervention returned Aristide to power following the 1991 coup, he and Aristide are asking those very foreign powers for help.

The US and Canada stepped up to the plate with promises of a total of over $2 million for humanitarian aid and technical assistance via the United Nations and the OAS.

Canada also said it has 100 police who might be able to come if the situation calms, and France said it is considering the possibility of sending some of the 4,000 troops stationed in the Caribbean.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also noted the UN might become “much more actively engaged” but he did not say how. UN troops took over from US troops in 1995 and were present in Haiti for almost three years. The US also announced it will send a group of soldiers to evaluate the situation.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and other US diplomats had said, however, that no foreign intervention was foreseen this time around. Instead, Aristide should make “radical changes in the way the government is run,” US Ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley said on Feb. 17.

Jane Regan and Daniel Morel have been awarded the 2004 Samuel Chavkin Prize for Integrity in Latin American Journalism, by the US magazine NACLA.


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