Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HAITI: Political Process Moving Forward Amid Disorder

Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Mar 9 2004 (IPS) - At an inauguration ceremony guarded by U.S. Marines, Haiti’s interim president on Monday called for "reconciliation" and "peace", but as shooting, looting, threats of a resurgent rebel army and political squabbling continue against a backdrop of foreign troops, these simple goals might remain illusive.

On Tuesday, Marines shot and killed a man – their second victim – as they patrolled the streets in an attempt to deliver stability and calm to the beleaguered nation eight days after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced to flee the country.

The soldiers killed a taxi driver who did not halt when ordered to, Radio Metropole reported. The Associated Press quoted a military spokesman who said the car approached a military checkpoint at high speed so soldiers opened fire on the driver. A passenger was wounded.

U.S. and other foreign troops are not here to police the streets, but increasingly that task is falling on their shoulders in a country where many hundreds if not thousands of Haitians – rebel soldiers from the disbanded army, ex-police officers, gang members and criminals – have guns.

Just one day ago, ex-Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre – designated president to replace Jean-Bertrand Aristide who says he was forced to resign and kidnapped by U.S. forces Feb. 29 – appealed for the nation’s disparate factions and forces to work together.

But outside, as military helicopters criss-crossed the skies above the sprawling slum-ringed capital, many hundreds of Aristide supporters surged around Haiti’s National Palace shouting, "Aristide must come back! No coup d’états!"

Only a day earlier, six people died and at least 26 others were injured when gunmen attacked an anti-Aristide demonstration in almost the same spot.

Inside the palace, Alexandre spoke in a half-empty hall, where a small audience of diplomats, a smattering of politicians and a few officials had gathered. He asked them to help him mend Haiti’s shattered social and economic fabric, undertake emergency steps to fight hunger, disarm weapons-laden groups and prepare for elections.

"The organisation of good elections … will allow the Haitian people to choose their representatives and leaders," Alexandre said.

The next step in that process is Tuesday’s scheduled choosing of a prime minister to replace Yvon Neptune, who served under Aristide, by a seven-member "council of sages", which includes a radio station owner, a feminist activist and businessmen and women..

Among the candidates are one of Aristide’s former prime ministers, businessman Smarck Michel; former Haitian Armed Forces general Herard Abraham, who served as president for three days just prior to the elections that brought former Catholic priest and champion of the poor Aristide to power in 1990, and Gerard Latortue, a former U.N. official and an international business consultant, who was foreign minister in 1988.

Boniface, the new prime minister and an interim cabinet are supposed to prepare for general elections within three months.

But the process and indeed the country are riddled with weak spots.

The formula being followed is unconstitutional, according to human rights lawyer Samuel Madistin. Once a member of Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party, he served two parliamentary terms, one in the lower house and once as a senator, but later became an outspoken critic of the president.

"We are in what I call an undeclared ‘exceptional period’," Madistin said in an interview last week. "All of these committees are extra-constitutional and illegal, but none of the authorities has the courage to say that".

Boniface and the foreign diplomats supporting Haiti’s latest transition – the "Group of Six" United States, France, Canada, the United Nations, Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) – have a tough row to hoe to prepare the nation for polling.

Marines on patrol in their Humvee armoured vehicles were shot at Monday as they rolled through a pro-Aristide neighbourhood on the hill above the Palace.

Near the airport, a group of 18 Marines struggled to keep looters from invading the capital’s huge Industrial Park, where earlier in the day, hundreds had ripped through thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Haiti’s half-staffed and demoralised police force was unable to stop them.

"Stay back! Stay back! You heard me!" shouted a young Marine as he sprayed mace towards the men and women who wanted to get over the wall.

When the soldiers left at the end of the day, the looters were back at work.. Tuesday’s shooting took place as Marines were trying to control the vast park area.

The 2,000 or so troops here – U.S., French and Chilean, soon to be joined by U.N. peacekeepers – are charged with providing security, but not policing. That fine line has been hard to discern as violent attacks on people and property continue, and its fuzziness is already raising the ire of Haitians.

On Sunday, unknown gunmen sprayed high-calibre bullets at a huge anti-Aristide demonstration although it was accompanied by a phalanx of U.S. and French soldiers.

Tens of thousands of marchers were demanding Aristide and members of his government be brought to justice for alleged crimes like corruption, human rights abuses and drug-dealing.

As they passed the National Palace, an area traditionally controlled by pro-Aristide thugs, the foreign troops were long gone when the tail end of the march was attacked by assailants in vehicles, on foot and on rooftops.

While the attackers’ identities remain unknown, previous marches organised by the same coalition were repeatedly attacked by gun-toting thugs claiming allegiance to Aristide.

Marines say they shot and killed one gunman, but despite repeated calls over the course of almost a half-hour, the soldiers never made it to where a half-dozen men were pinned down by sniper fire, including cameraman and reporter Jose Ricardo Ortega, 37, of Spain’s Antena 3, who was shot in the chest just as a reporter finally found an ambulance to evacuate other injured people.

He died of his injuries soon after reaching a hospital.

In all, six people were killed and at least 26 injured, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights said.

At the hospital, where three bodies lay in pools of blood and a dozen or so bloodied injured people sat in the halls, hundreds outside protested that foreign troops had not done enough.

Charles Baker, a factory owner and spokesman for the coalition that called the protest, was inside, visiting and consoling the injured.

"This is a disaster," he said as he came out of the emergency room, his shoes bloody.

"This happened while the international community was there’ the Haitian police were there, and they are promising to protect us. But basically, until they go after the chimeres (a term used to refer to violent, pro-Aristide militants) and arrest them, until they go after Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and other members of the government, this will keep happening."

Guy Philippe, the leader of the Haitian National Front rebel army that took over police stations in about one-half of the country in the three-week uprising that led to Aristide’s fall, was also at the hospital.

Philippe and other soldiers, who include convicted murderers and known human rights abusers, were wildly cheered when they took part in Sunday’s march..

The rebel leader announced that instead of disarming his soldiers, as he had promised, they would remain mobilised.

"If (the foreign troops) can’t defend the Haitian people … as commandante, I will soon be forced to tell all my troops to take up their arms," Philippe said on Radio Vision 2000, a popular station relayed around most of the country.

Rebel soldiers are still visible in much of Haiti’s north, since police abandoned their posts in the region’s main cities.

Half a world away Monday, Aristide – in his first press appearance since leaving Haiti a little over a week ago – declared he is still the country’s legal president.

"I am the elected president and I remain the elected president," he said at a press conference in Bagui, Central African Republic, sitting by his wife Mildred. Repeating that he had been kidnapped, Aristide called for "peaceful resistance" to the "occupation", and vowed to return to Haiti.

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