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On the Brink in Haiti

February 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Lydia, tell us about the situation on the ground right now. How intensive is the fighting and where is it?

LYDIA POLGREEN: The fighting at this point is in the northern part of the country where the rebels continue to hold the city of Gonaives, and another city in the central plateau, and the rebel leaders are currently making plans to march on Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince.

MARGARET WARNER: The State Department is urging Americans to leave. How many Americans are in Haiti and how many really are leaving?

LYDIA POLGREEN: There are approximately 20,000 registered with the United States Embassy here. It’s hard to say how many are leaving. Apparently the airport has been quite busy today. All the Peace Corps volunteers have been evacuated, from what I’m told. There are many missionaries who come to Haiti, but apparently quite a few of them are staying and sticking with it.

MARGARET WARNER: The Pentagon is also sending a team down there to assess the security of the Americans and the embassy. If the rebels were to march on Port-au-Prince, would the embassy be vulnerable? Do the police in the capital have control?

LYDIA POLGREEN: The police in the capital claim they do have control, but there are only 4,000 police in the whole country and about half of them are in this region. So it’s unclear whether they could repel a large force that was well-armed. It’s anybody’s guess at this point how that would play out.

MARGARET WARNER: In a nutshell, who are these rebels and what are their demands?

LYDIA POLGREEN: They’re sort of a motley crew. It all started with a group that was formerly known as the Cannibal Army based out of Gonaives; they were allies of President Aristide who switched sides after the slaying of their leader, and they have been joined by some rather unsavory characters from the country’s past. One of them is Louis Chamblain, who is a head of FRAPH, who ran death squads after the Duvalier regime fell, and a gentleman by the name of Guy Philippe, a former police chief accused of plotting a coup in 2002.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the administration says they have a plan — they’re sending a top-level State Department delegation tomorrow to meet with Aristide. Are there any responsible opposition figures they can also meet with?

LYDIA POLGREEN: Opposition figures such as Evans Paul, who is a political leader, and others are saying that they hope to meet with this delegation. They say that they’re ready to talk. They have been fairly hard-line in their stance that Aristide must go before any sort of elections are planned. But once everybody’s at the table, that could very easily change.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Aristide said yesterday he is absolutely not going to leave until his term is up. But Secretary Powell said yesterday, no forcible eviction, but, you know, if an agreement were worked out and he were to leave, that would be all right. How is that being read in Haiti?

LYDIA POLGREEN: It’s hard to say. The president has not made any statements today since the statement from the secretary of state, but it appears that he plans to remain in the presidency no matter what. He has, I think, taken the statement that the policy of the United States is not regime change to heart, and he is clinging to that as the best hope of him remaining in power. So it is unclear exactly how it will play out.

MARGARET WARNER: If by chance, if the Americans were able to negotiate some kind of agreement between Aristide and the sort of political opposition, does the political opposition in turn control the rebels out in the field, or is that a whole other group?

LYDIA POLGREEN: They claim they’re completely unconnected. The civil opposition groups have said they’re nonviolent, that they do not condone the violence that’s going on in the rest of the country. However, they have also said that if that violence were to result in the departure of Aristide then that might not be a bad thing for the country, so they’re sort of speaking out of both sides of their mouth, but they’ve been quite clear that they do not control them.

And, incidentally, the rebel groups in Gonaives and elsewhere have said they’re not in contact with the opposition groups in Port-au-Prince. The government alleges that they are linked and has repeatedly tried to make the links public.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your sense of how much support Aristide still has in the population?

LYDIA POLGREEN: That’s very difficult to gauge. Aristide’s stronghold has always been among the poor, among the most downtrodden of the Haitian people. And when you go to the slums of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere, you’ll find people saying “five years” in French, which is a rallying cry for Aristide to finish his term.

So I think it’s fair to say he remains popular among the poor. What is more difficult to gauge is how the middle class, the intellectuals, feel about him. I think he has lost a great deal of support, especially among people who expected him to be the great liberator and lifter up of his country.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Lydia, meanwhile, what is the humanitarian situation like for ordinary Haitians?

LYDIA POLGREEN: Well, in the capital things are going on fairly as normal. In parts of the country like Cap-Haitien that has been cut off between the north-south road has been closed the situation is much more difficult. They cannot get supplies by road. Apparently, a barge of rice is heading to that part of the country for the WFP, the World Food Program.

But the situation is quite difficult. There is very little fuel. Similarly, in Gonaives and other rebel-held areas, you know, life has never been that great for these people. Some live on as little as a dollar a day. So any disturbance like this can push people over the edge.

MARGARET WARNER: Lydia Polgreen, thanks so much.