Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

/UPDATE*/HAITI: Possible Coup Only One Piece of Puzzle

Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 27 2004 (IPS) - As the world waited Friday for a decisive move that would herald yet another extreme political change in this plagued nation, Haiti and the Haitian people find themselves in an almost impossible Chinese puzzle.

Although one-half of the country is under rebel control and armed gangs rule cities in the centre and the south, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has refused to leave, despite growing hints from France, Canada and others in the international community. Yet the country’s political opposition has refused to play ball until he does.

Armed Aristide supporters only lose the embattled president support as they rampage and ransom, and the rebel soldiers advancing on the capital Port-au-Prince – mostly ex-army men from the force that ousted the president in 1991 – march from town to town, often gaining supporters as they offer the exhausted and nearly hopeless Haitians a new cause for hope.

Late Friday, rebel leader Guy Philippe said that he planned to encircle the capital Port-au-Prince and stop supplies from entering the country.

“We want to block Port-au-Prince totally,” he told reporters in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, which the rebels of the Haitian National Revolutionary Liberation Front seized Sunday.

Philippe said the rebels would try to cut land routes into the capital, and would send two boats to attempt to prevent ships from bringing in supplies..

“Port-au-Prince now … would be very hard to take it. It would be a lot of fight, a lot of death,” Philippe said. “So what we want is desperation first.”

Earlier in the day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned of “widespread bloodshed and indiscriminate destruction” if the rebels attacked the capital.

It called Philippe’s human rights record “dubious”, but labelled fellow rebel and former paramilitary Louis Jodel Chamblain, “responsible for countless atrocities under the military government that ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994”.

Among the armed civilian supporters now poised to defend the capital from behind burning barricades, many “are criminals known for violence and abuses”, added HRW.

The Red Cross said Friday it was sending equipment to Haiti to be deployed in hospitals in Port-au-Prince and Gonaives to prepare for people wounded by violence.

The agency also expressed concern at reports that armed gangs had targeted some hospitals.

Aristide’s position appeared not to have changed from a day earlier.

“I will leave the palace on Feb. 7, 2006, which is good for democracy,” he told CNN in a telephone interview Thursday. “We have had 32 coup d’états. That is enough.”

But his rule and the very fabric of this island country – which more than one writer has labelled a candidate for ”failed state” – face a threat much more complex than a coup.

In the capital and a few other cities, the people wielding the guns are not trying to overthrow anyone. Instead, they say they are defending Aristide – but they sometimes use their guns to hold up drivers and pedestrians.

Several areas of the city are totally locked down by gun-toting Aristide supporters, who set up barricades every afternoon saying they are ready to defend this city of some two million people against the soldiers of the Haitian National Revolutionary Liberation Front.

“We are ready to defend Aristide to the death!” one man armed with a wooden club told a carload of journalists Thursday.

Thursday night, heavily armed thugs – not necessarily pro- or anti-government but certainly an example of the near anarchy here – attacked and pillaged several private terminals in the port area. A policeman speaking on condition of anonymity said his officers were no match for the thugs’ AK-47 machine guns.

In contrast, in Les Cayes southwest of the capital, two groups of armed groups – one opposed to Aristide’s rule and the other claiming to defend the president – faced off against one another Thursday. Police abandoned the police station, according to the local correspondent of Radio Quisqueya.

Yet in many cities where police have fled their posts, it is angry citizens who ransack and torch the stations. Haiti’s fledgling police force, whose numbers have dwindled from 7,000 to near 4,000, has been repeatedly accused of corruption, torture and even summary executions. While some rights abusers have been brought to task, many more remain in uniform.

And finally, the opposition to Aristide’s rule is a collection of disparate elements whose camaraderie will likely melt once their common objective – the president’s departure – is achieved.

Philippe’s Front, whose troops now control one-half of this Caribbean country, and who early this morning took the town of Mirebalais about 60 kms from the capital, chose arms to evict the beleaguered president.

Three weeks into the uprising, some 70 people are dead, many of them pro-government police officers.

“We will do whatever it takes,” said commander-in-chief Philippe, once police chief for Cap-Haitien, a city rebels overwhelmed Feb. 22. “But I don’t want to be president; I just don’t want Aristide to be president”.

Philippe’s former office in Cap-Haitien is nothing but charred concrete walls today.

“Down with Aristide! Liberty!” scores of young men and women shouted in Cap-Haitien on Sunday as they rushed in and out of police buildings, carrying away fax machines, furniture, anti-riot gear and anything else they could lift.

“Aristide is the one who handed out guns in the first place,” Philippe said three days later.

Rights groups like Amnesty International (AI) and HRW have repeatedly criticised Aristide’s government for tolerating and even encouraging armed pro-government gangs that harass his critics.

“He is the one who chose violent means,” said Philippe. “You can only fight violence with violence.”

The other half of the opposition says it advocates peaceful means.

“We are in favour of non-violence,” Micha Gaillard, spokesman for the Democratic Convergence, a platform of political parties now part of the broad Democratic Platform of business, political, union and other groups.

For more than a year those bodies have held dozens of massive rallies and marches. They are often attacked by rock-, machete- and gun-welding government supporters.

“Each sector is playing its own part, but we are in favour of non-violence,” repeated Gaillard, a university professor.

While Aristide and others say the political and armed opposition are part of the same organisation, both Philippe and Gaillard deny it.

Finally, there is the problem with the “peace plan” proffered by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organisation of American States (OAS), which would see Aristide remain but within a power-sharing government, until his term ends in 2006.

Nobody invited the guys with the guns to participate.

“Nobody has tried to contact us,” Philippe said. “Nobody.”

His forces have now seized police stations in over one-half of the country, and thus control four of Haiti’s ten departments or provinces. Their next target is the capital.

“Once we have a civilian administration in place here, we can move toward the capital,” said Philippe’s second Gilbert Dragon, as he waited for Philippe by the swimming pool of a Cap-Haitien hotel earlier this week.

“Nobody has stepped forward to take over so we are having to spend a few extra days here.”

In other cities – like Gonaives or Hinche – local leaders have assumed the role of provisional “mayor”, and only a small group of soldiers stays behind.

The Front’s growing force, which numbers at least in the many hundreds, consists of cops who deserted their jobs, former pro-government thugs who have changed camps and, especially, ex-soldiers from the army Aristide disbanded nine years ago.

Accused of brutality prior to and during the Duvalier dictatorship, the army carried out a bloody coup d’état against Aristide’s first rule in 1991.

Philippe and Dragon belonged to the army, but were not involved in the coup since they were on a scholarship with Ecuadorian and U.S. army officers in Ecuador. When the army was disbanded, they joined the police force set up to replace it.

Both men were later accused of plotting a coup and fled to the Dominican Republic, where they met up with other disgruntled ex-soldiers.

Philippe said his attitude towards any of the many peacekeeping forces rumoured under consideration by the international community will depend on its objective.

“We won’t attack them if they are here to remove Aristide,” he said. “As we have always said, we turn in our weapons the day he’s gone and a transition government is set up.”

*(ATTN EDS: Adds info on warnings of violence, rebel plan)

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