HAITI: Must ‘Important History of Violence’ Repeat?
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Oct 22 2004 (IPS) – "The ‘steamroller’ swept across Port-au-Prince … All night and into the morning furious battles took place throughout the lower city. Finally, as the army gained the upper hand, trucks began picking up littered corpses."
"The ‘steamroller’ swept across Port-au-Prince … All night and into the morning furious battles took place throughout the lower city. Finally, as the army gained the upper hand, trucks began picking up littered corpses."
Those lines could have come from a newswire story on any given day here over the past three weeks. The capital has seen headless bodies, handcuffed corpses, rotting piles of cadavers at the morgue, battles with automatic weapons and generalised terror. More than 55 people, among them nine police officers, have been killed here since Sep. 30.
But the words are a half-century old. They come from a book called ‘Written in Blood’, by Robert Debs Heinl, Nancy Gordon Heinl and Michael Heinl and describe a day in 1957 when the outraged masses (the "steamroller") of the capital’s Bel-Aire neighbourhood rampaged after hearing a rumour that their hero, the recently deposed populist president Daniel Fignolé, had been assassinated.
Five decades later, Bel-Aire is once again the scene of violence tied to loyalists to another deposed president. But today, instead of a steamroller, a much smaller gang of mostly gun-toting thugs terrorises downtown Port-au-Prince.
The violence erupted Sep. 30, the 13th anniversary of the military-led coup d’état against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (during his first interrupted term in office). When several hundred people demonstrated to demand his return, police clashed with marchers. When it was over, three or four policemen and perhaps an equal number of demonstrators were dead.
While nobody can be sure who fired first, the rancour behind the carnage was clear. The headless bodies of three policemen were later found and men claiming allegiance to Aristide announced that "Operation Baghdad" (after the beheadings and other violent murders committed by insurgents in the U.S.-occupied nation) would continue until the president returned to the National Palace.
Aristide left on Feb. 29, after months of civil protest and as an armed force of former Haitian army soldiers and disgruntled police officers approached the capital. The former priest says he was forced from power by Washington and other foreign powers in a "modern coup d’état."
While Haiti has had some 33 coups and violent changes of power, Aristide is the only president to be thrown out of office twice.
Eight months after his departure, many things here do not appear to have changed for the better.
While diplomats, politicians and United Nations peacekeepers and their administrators discuss plans for more patrols or electronic voting machines or irrigation projects in their air-conditioned offices on the hills overlooking the harbour, down the slope the sporadic rattle of automatic gunfire has echoed across the dirty downtown almost daily this month.
On Oct. 15, grey smoke rose from burning tire barricades. Schools, businesses and banks in and around Bel-Aire were shuttered for the 15th day in a row. Black-hooded, black-helmeted policemen scurried down rock-strewn streets that looked like those of a country in a state of civil war.
"What is going on is literally insane," human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeux told IPS on Oct. 16. "It is what we call in philosophy a ‘death march.’ If we can’t stop this, we are looking at the destruction of the Haitian nation. If we continue like this, we will not only miss the democratic transition, we are also putting in jeopardy our very existence."
Bajeux was not talking about the flooding that left some 3,000 dead when rain rushed down treeless slopes in and around the northern city of Gonaives in September; nor of the more than 1,500 Haitians killed in May flooding.
He meant the political violence that has dominated this nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic since ex-slaves won their 13-year revolution against Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops in 1804.
Almost from the beginning, class, colour, clan and greed split Haitians, as interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue acknowledged after laying a wreath at the tomb of revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines on Oct. 17.
"Today is a very sad anniversary for all of us Haitians," Latortue told reporters. "Remember, it is division that led to the assassination of the founder of the nation. Unfortunately, since then Haitians have not learned that it is not division that will help the republic."
Dessalines, crowned emperor within a year of Haiti’s declaration of independence, was hacked and shot to death by his own soldiers only two years later, his mutilated body left to rot in the tropical sun. He was just the first of many Haitian leaders whose reign ended abruptly.
Latortue’s government, which has shut out members of Aristide’s Lavalas movement from its ranks, does not appear to be tottering on the edge just yet.
But while he spoke to the phalanx of foreign reporters who flocked into the country to cover what they thought might be another ‘fin de regime’, a few kms away a platoon of armed men dressed in camouflage exercised, brandishing arms ranging from M-14s to Uzis to semi-automatic Israeli Galils.
Haiti has no army – the Armed Forces was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 following the coup – but these men are demanding it be reconstituted.
Ex-Captain Remissainthe Ravix controls the ex-soldiers, who are believed to number 1,000 – 2,000 men and to be stationed in a number of cities around the country. Despite their obvious unconstitutionality, they carry weapons and patrol, police and even arrest people. And they are growing restless.
Early this month Ravix brought some 50 men into the capital to set up a base in an apartment building, hoping their presence would pressure the government.
"For the past three or four weeks we have been ready, waiting for the government to call on us to bring order to the disorder," Ravix told IPS on Oct. 19. "But it seems like the government doesn’t want us … We are the ones who got rid of the dictator, and this is the thanks we get."
Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers have struggled to bring order to the streets but they give the ex-soldiers a wide berth. Fearing further violence, Canada and the United States recently advised their citizens not to visit Haiti, and Washington also moved all "non-essential" embassy personnel out of the country.
Latortue blames the violence directly on Haiti’s ex-president.
"His capacity is only to destroy," the interim leader told reporters at the Oct. 17 ceremony. "He knows how to kill, how to put fire, how to put violence, how to arm 12-, 13-, 14-year-old young people. He is the symbol of violence. He believes in that."
During Aristide’s last two years in power, groups of sometimes-armed young men nicknamed "chimère" ("monster") who got "zombie" cheques from government offices regularly threatened attacked anti-government marchers, journalists and even government officials not deemed loyal enough.
Aristide never clearly condemned them, nor has he damned this latest flare-up. Instead, he simply denied Latortue’s accusations.
"Latortue, stop the lying, stop the killings," Aristide said in an Oct. 20 statement he issued from South Africa, where he lives. The ex-priest also called for "dialogue."
Some Aristide supporters, like a man who said his name was Hot Pepper, say they are being unfairly targeted.
"The police come in here and shoot at just anybody. Why?" said the 22-year-old, whose shirt did not quite hide the handgun on his hip. "Just because we believe in Aristide? They can’t shoot me for that."
But police have shot, although they say only after being fired upon. Officers have also arrested hundreds, including two ex-parliamentarians and an outspoken Aristide supporter, Father Gérard Jean-Juste.
Officials say parliamentarians were the "intellectual authors" of the violence and have hinted Jean-Juste used his church compound to hide "Operation Baghdad" gunmen. But human rights group Amnesty International (AI) has protested the priest’s arrest, as has his lawyer, and so far no hard evidence has been presented to the public.
"This pastor joins a growing number of political prisoners in Haiti," U.S. law professor Bill Quigley said in an Oct. 16 statement.
The interim government is facing tough dilemmas: penniless and desperate chimères, an ill-equipped and poorly trained police force, an inadequate and corrupt justice system, frustrated and hungry ex-soldiers and a U.N. peacekeeping force whose mandate appears to stop far short of engagement. And that is just the beginning of the list.
One "helping" hand has been extended from Washington, where the Bush administration this week agreed to consider requests for weapons sales from the Latortue government on a case-by-case basis, effectively ending a 13-year arms blockade.
The United Nations has come under criticism from all sides for not stopping the violence. But U.N. Spokesman Damien Onses-Cardona said the situation is not as bad as local and international media make out.
"It’s not really that there is a systematic threat to the security of the country," he told IPS on Oct. 13. "There are people creating a state of chaos, I think, and I think this is intended."
"I would like to note that violence in Haiti is not something completely new, that just started two weeks ago, all of a sudden," added Onses-Cardona. "It is a country that has a very, very important history of violence and political violence."