Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-HAITI: Burning Slum Signals Gang Rule

Jane Regan

GONAIVES, Sep 30 2003 (IPS) - “Down with Aristide! Down with Aristide! We don’t want him any more!” screamed the street vendor as she hurried through the black billows of smoke rising from a pile of flaming tires, her tattered sandals crunching on the broken glass and twisted metal of the freshly built barricade.

Around her, the marketplace was panicked. People rushed to gather their wares. For the fifth day in a row Sep. 27, demonstrators were shutting down this dusty port town.

It might be any poor Latin American country. But the residents of the seaside slum of Raboteau, where the average person hacks out a life on less than one dollar a day, were not marching for lower taxes or more electricity or public schools. They were protesting the death of local strongman and pro-government activist Amiot ‘Cuban’ Métayer.

And although Métayer’s faithful support of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas Family party almost got him killed, his followers blame that same Aristide for the brutal murder and vow to protest until the president steps down.

The story behind Métayer’s murder and Raboteau’s revolt offers a glimpse at an ugly underbelly of Lavalas politics, a fragile formula where gangs rule the streets.

Métayer was a hero to many of his neighbours in this ramshackle collection of shacks and concrete houses squeezed between glistening open sewers and a dirty beach used as a toilet.

He led a feisty pro-Aristide resistance during the 1991-1994 coup that overthrew the current president and doled out jobs through the port where his brother Buter Métayer is assistant director. He could also be counted on to provide pro-government demonstrations on command.

But Métayer was also possibly Haiti’s ”Most Wanted” ever since his partisans – called the ”Cannibal Army” – busted him out of prison on Aug. 2, 2002 by driving a bulldozer through a wall, torching the courthouse and city hall along the way. (Métayer had been arrested for arson.)

Soon after, no less than the Organisation of American States (OAS), the U.S. administration, and rights groups were demanding his re-arrest for the lynching of an opposition party member on Dec. 17, 2001.

That day, armed men attacked the National Palace. Lavalas called it a coup attempt; the opposition said it was theatrics rigged to allow for a wave of anti-opposition repression unleashed across the country.

According to the OAS, Métayer was behind the lynching.

Métayer, who turned against the president for a few days in 2002, said Aristide’s National Palace was behind it. Officials told him and his ”Army” to roll out of Raboteau and attack the opposition, he argued.

Métayer was never arrested – the president, prime minister, judges and police all refused to have him picked up – and now he never will be.

On Sep. 21, the burly Métayer left his seaside stronghold with a well-known former government employee and frequent visitor to the National Palace. The next day, his bullet-ridden body – the face hacked off – was found an hour away.

Demonstrators have occupied the streets ever since, chanting anti-Aristide slogans, scrawling graffiti and piling up massive barricades. (Sunday was a day off.)

After five days of protests, including one where marchers fired on police headquarters, one man is dead and at least a dozen, one policeman and the others protestors or bystanders, injured. A half-dozen weapons have been seized and a dozen young men arrested.

”We control the city,” said Haitian National Police Commissaire Camille Marcellus, dressed in military gear, Sep. 27. His men wore black uniforms, helmets and hoods and patrol with automatic weapons. ”They (protesters) do what they want in their neighbourhood but they can’t come downtown.”

But Marcellus also said that police feel abandoned by the rest of the government. The civil government: judges, the ”delegate” (representative of the executive) and the mayor are nowhere to be seen.

And until Sep. 28 at least, Raboteau remained unconquered territory, barricades blocking all entrances, Métayer’s replacement – his little brother – ruling inside.

”I always knew ‘Cuban’ would die but I never thought Aristide would kill him. It’s treason,” said Buter Métayer as he sat on the porch of his dead brother’s neat two-storey pink house that towers above the grey and dirty cage-like homes on either side.

”Aristide had to get rid of ‘Cuban’ to make the OAS happy. But they wanted him arrested, not killed. If he had appeared before a judge, he would have had to tell the truth about the Palace,” he said, the bitterness palpable on his lips.

Many foreign governments and the World Bank, who have withheld support from the government ever since disputed 2001 parliamentary elections, are demanding democratic reforms, disarmament of gangs and improvements in the poor human rights situation before resuming aid and loans.

”I see now that this can happen to any Lavalas militant,” Buter continued. ”We won’t stop our movement until Aristide steps down.”

The hundreds of men, women and children crowded around the house listening to the interview broke into cheers and sang, ”Tell George Bush Aristide fell into shit!”, beating out the rhythm on overturned plastic buckets.

Métayer’s ”Cannibal Army” is really not much more than a frustrated rabble, albeit with a few guns, that rolled out of the slum whenever the opposition tried to organise demonstration. But its manoeuvres gave results.

The ”Army” shot at and broke up student protests, attacked opposition marches with whips, clubs and bottles, and held rowdy demonstrations in front of the offices of whichever public official Métayer did not like.

What Métayer called ”popular pressure” drove two judges and a half-dozen journalists into exile and a Delegate back to the capital. (She ”resigned”.) The arson charges were also dropped.

The ”Army” is also not the only pro-Palace ”street heat” around. While the Aristide government can still count on support from peasants in some parts of the country, the cities are largely lost.

”Today’s regime, the Lavalas Family, essentially depends on different gangs around the country,” said Jean Alix René, a history professor at the state university and the author of a recent book on the Aristide phenomenon called ‘The Populist Seduction’.

”And when the politicians are finished using them, they throw them away.”

Gang leaders mobilise people for pro-government rallies and in return might provide to access to officials, jobs, loans, handouts and cherished spots at public schools. Last week, one marched into a police station in the capital and engineered the release of a number of prisoners.

The gangs are part of the Lavalas political machine. But that machine is fragile.

”If that house of cards tumbles, there’s no telling what will happen,” René said.

Secretary of State for Communication Mario Dupuy rejects the label ”gangs”, calling the groups ”popular organisations”. The accusations against the government are ”ridiculous”, he adds.

”It could be the opposition killed Métayer. After all, who profits from the crime?” Dupuy said from his office in the capital as mobs were marching in Gonaives. ”You see, the opposition’s real goal is to destroy the popular organisations because they don’t want poor people to organize.”

Whoever ordered Métayer’s face hacked off, Raboteau suspects the Palace, and its mobs have taken to yelling ”Down with!” instead of ”Long live!”

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