A nation in chaos

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

Haitian refugees who returned to the capital Port au Prince after their boat was interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard on February 28. - YURI CORTEZ/AFP

Haitian refugees who returned to the capital Port au Prince after their boat was interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard on February 28. - YURI CORTEZ/AFP

The exit of President Bertrand Aristide highlights the need for the international community to intervene effectively in order to prevent Haiti's descent into total chaos.

THE going into exile of President Bertrand Aristide on February 29 following a virtual ultimatum given by the Bush administration marks the end of yet another chapter in the tumultuous history of the impoverished Caribbean nation. The White House, in a statement issued on February 28, had asked Aristide to quit the presidency as American-backed rebels were preparing for an assault on the capital.

The Democratic frontrunner for President in the United States, Senator John Kerry, had strongly criticised the Bush administration's handling of the crisis in Haiti. The tragedy fast unravelling in Haiti could have been averted if the international community had cared enough. The island-nation, situated not too far away from the most powerful nation in the world, seems to be on its way to joining the list of "failed" states. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's priority seems to be to prevent the tide of Haitians fleeing the anarchy at home from reaching U.S. shores. In the last week of February, a ship carrying Haitian refugees bound for the U.S. was intercepted on the high seas and sent back.

President Aristide, the democratically elected leader of Haiti, tried to rally his supporters to confront the rebel forces. The remnants of the former military dictatorship, members of the former secret police, the drug mafia, and mercenaries pouring in from across the border from the Dominican Republic, played an important role in the uprising. One of the leaders of the uprising is Lois Jodel Chamblain, who ran a death squad when Haiti was under a military dictatorship during 1991-94. Another leader is Jean Tatoune, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1990 for his role in the murder of 15 people in the mid-1980s. Guy Philippe, who has emerged as the most prominent leader of the rebels, was involved in an abortive attack on the Presidential Palace in 2001. He is said to have links with the international drug cartel.

Only in the last week of February, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) proposed a compromise involving a power-sharing deal between Aristide and the opposition. Under the plan, a three-party commission was to have been set up to appoint a new Prime Minister and a government of national unity with Aristide remaining President. The President accepted the deal but the Opposition was quick to reject it. The latter demanded that Aristide, whose term in office was to expire only in 2006, resign from the presidency.

Aristide, who made his reputation as a radical Catholic priest working in the impoverished areas of the Haitian capital, Port au Prince, is no stranger to the vicissitudes of the region's politics. In 1991, the Haitian people gave him a landslide victory after his party, Lavalas (avalanche), led the fight to overthrow the corrupt and cruel dictatorship of the Duvalier family. The1991 elections were supervised by international monitors. However, as Aristide went about implementing the radical reforms he had promised to the poor, he was ousted within months of assuming office, in a coup led by the Army with the tacit support of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. After more than three years of brutal rule, the right-wing military government was forced to quit, under intense international pressure, which included punitive economic sanctions. Aristide returned to Haiti after President Bill Clinton sent in American troops to stabilise the situation.

During his second stint in office, Aristide seemed to have mellowed politically. He had left priesthood at the advice of the Pope and had become a family man. Aristide was also in a way indebted to Washington for its part in restoring democracy and paving the way for his return to Haiti. More than 20,000 troops were in Haiti in the early 1990s to supervise the conduct of the elections held after the ouster of the military dictatorship. The American troops, however, did not disarm the thugs and the right-wing militia leaders who had run riot in the intervening years. The same bunch has now re-emerged to terrorise the populace in the Haitian countryside. During his second stint in power, starting in April 2000, Aristide was careful not to rub Washington the wrong way. The prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were implemented without much fuss. American agricultural products flooded Haitian markets, devastating local producers. When the Haitian government fined American rice exporters for evading customs duty, the Bush administration responded by withholding $30 million in much-needed aid.

Almost immediately after the 2000 elections, Opposition leaders started demanding the ouster of Aristide saying that he was a dictator in the making. Many Opposition leaders had links with the ousted military dictatorship. Some of the militia leaders involved in the current fighting are known to have links with the Latin American drug mafia; Haiti is an important trans-shipment point for the drug trade. The international aid that had been promised to Haiti after the restoration of democracy did not materialise. The small amount of American aid that eventually reached Haiti was deliberately channelled through various non-governmental organisations close to the Republican Party of President George W. Bush. The Aristide government was deliberately sidelined.

When the crisis in Haiti seemed to be getting out of hand, the Caricom asked for United Nations peace-keepers to be sent to the country. Two of the major cities, Gonaives and Cap Haitien, were taken over by the armed rebels in late February, and this gave them control over the country's heartland.

Gonaives was where the country's freedom from France was declared on January 1, 1804. President Aristide went to the port city to mark the bicentennial of the historic occasion this year. In a speech, he said that he was the true heir of the mantle of Haiti's slave soldiers who defeated the French colonialists. The Haitian uprising was inspired by the French revolution and was led by a freed slave, Toussaint L'Ouverture. It was the first military defeat suffered by a colonial power no less mighty than France under Napoleon. That defeat effectively ended Napoleon Bonaparte's dream of building a French empire in the Americas. The Haitian revolution, led by liberated black slaves, also lent a helping hand to Simon Bolivar in the liberation of Latin America in the 19th century.

Napoleon, however, had his revenge by recapturing Haiti briefly and exacting reparations worth 150 million gold francs, worth about $10 billion today. So, from the very outset, Haiti was at a tremendous disadvantage. In the first half of the 19th century, the U.S. too supported France and in fact refused to recognise Haiti's independence. In 1915, the U.S. invaded Haiti and stayed on until 1934.

The movement to destabilise the Lavalas party government led by Aristide started in right earnest in late 2003. President George Bush's envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, Otto Reich, was in Port au Prince in November last along with other diplomats representing the OAS in order to broker peace between the Lavalas and the Opposition. Though Aristide had tempered his fiery anti-American rhetoric in recent times, the Bush administration remained deeply suspicious of him. The presence of Reich, a right-winger with a known history of involvement in destabilising progressive governments in the region, was an ominous sign for the Aristide government.

The main Opposition grouping in Haiti, known as the Democratic Convergence (CD), was propped up by Washington. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had set up a "democracy enhancement programme" in Haiti. "The State Department's democracy enhancement programme was specifically designed to fund those sectors of the Haitian political spectrum where opposition to the Aristide government could be encouraged."

The Western media also went out of their way to portray Aristide and the Lavalas party as being isolated from the Haitian populace. The numbers of people attending Opposition rallies were invariably inflated, while massive pro-Aristide rallies, which have been taking place since November, were glossed over. Aristide was pictured as living in an ivory tower, isolated from his people.

Aristide's supporters had a single demand - allow the President to complete his five-year-term for which he had got a massive mandate. Despite the paucity of funds, the government did try to help the impoverished masses. Houses and mansions belonging to henchmen of the military regimes, who had fled the country, were turned into schools for children of the shanty towns. Despite budgetary constraints, the government ran a literacy programme for the benefit of the needy. Those attending the programme were also given highly subsidised meals. The Cuban government sent around 400 doctors to cater to the medical needs of the poor at the request of the Haitian government. Such programmes have ensured that Aristide and his party remain popular among the poor in Haiti. The barricades put up in Port au Prince by the supporters of Aristide in the last week of February to prevent a violent takeover, symbolise the support he continues to enjoy.

There have been reports in the American media that those currently involved in the military operations against the Haitian government are armed, trained and employed by the intelligence services of the U.S. Many of the paramilitary leaders leading the campaign against Aristide were prominent figures in the American-backed campaign to sideline Aristide in the mid-1990s. One of the leaders of the present right-wing insurrection is Lois Jodel Chamblain, who led a death squad involved in the killing of many prominent Haitians close to Aristide during 1993-94. Chamblain and his group of heavily armed fighters had crossed over from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where many anti-Aristide exiles have set up base. The rebels are armed with sophisticated weapons originating from the U.S. In comparison, the 30,000-strong Haitian police force under Aristide is poorly armed. Yet another chaotic chapter in Haiti's history is in the offing.

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