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On the Brink in Haiti

February 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Martin, welcome. Is there any sense in Port-au-Prince today that you’re in a capital that may be under eventual assault?

MARTIN KASTE: Well, there certainly is a nervousness in the air here. There are rumors flying, and a lot of people talk about the possibility that there might be some sort of an underground force here, people who might be lying in wait, there might be stocks of weapons, but that’s all on the basis of rumor.

When we see when you go out into the city are barricades that are going up, especially after about 5 p.m. and all night there are barricades that block traffic. These barricades are normally manned by the supporters of President Aristide, who are checking cars, who are basically just looking for the possibility of armed groups moving into the city. So there’s certainly a sense apprehension here. But at the same time, you know, it is Carnival. There are people setting up their booths, setting up their reviewing stands for the Carnival. So, it’s sort of a … it’s a strange mixture of moods here.

RAY SUAREZ: So even with some of the largest cities in the country under rebel control they’re still going to have Mardi Gras tomorrow in Port-au-Price?

MARTIN KASTE: A special extra two days of Mardi Gras because it’s the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence. Of course they didn’t see this coming. But, yeah, it’s not Mardi Gras as they’re used to it, it’s not Carnival as they’re used to it here. There are definitely fewer people coming out, and there’s some nervousness, but there are some diehards that are going to at least try to have some fun.

RAY SUAREZ: The report that has just come in that a detachment of U.S. Marines has landed to protect American assets there, what can you tell us about that?

MARTIN KASTE: It looks like this was at the request of the ambassador here, James Foley, who asked for some beefing-up of security, not only for the embassy, but also U.S. installations, most likely U.S. aid-related installations, that sort of thing. Fifty Marines though — that’s a big contingent considering the size of the mission here.

There’s some thought on the ground here that these Marines would also be very useful in the event of some sort of an evacuation, if that came to that. But right now, ostensibly, this is an extra security for the embassy and its personnel.

RAY SUAREZ: Have Americans heeded the State Department’s request to leave Haiti?

MARTIN KASTE: Not everyone. But there have been longer lines than usual at the airport, there have been some missionaries leaving. You can still get a flight out if you’re willing to wait in line, go on stand-by. You can get out, so it’s not a mad rush for the exits.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent days, outside negotiators have tried to press a solution on President Aristide, which would include making room for the opposition in the running of the country. Does it look like Aristide is in any mood for compromise?

MARTIN KASTE: Well, Aristide has agreed to the plan. On Saturday, he signed on when this international team of diplomats was here pressing this plan. They went to him first. He said yes.

And then they went to the opposition — it should be that, should be said non-armed, non- insurgent opposition based mainly here in the capital — they did not say yes. They didn’t say no outright, but they’ve been very reluctant to sign onto the plan because it does leave Aristide in office as president. And they say no matter what you do to clip his wings, so to speak, in terms of changing the mixture of the Cabinet-level officers and the government, all that. They say that as long as Aristide is president he can use that office to intimidate his opponents; to intimidate them.

One opposition member came out of these negotiations with the diplomats in an exasperated mood and said, “What these foreigners don’t understand is if we agree to something that leaves Aristide in office, will this appear as an opposition?”

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the armed opposition has said much the same, that they don’t want to see an end to this that leaves the president in office, yet at the same time, the political opposition is trying to put as much daylight between itself and the armed groups as possible. What’s going on?

MARTIN KASTE: I think they’re strange bedfellows. The non-armed opposition here in the capital certainly doesn’t endorse what’s going on in the northern part of the country, in this armed rebellion. They always repeat when you ask them a question, using nonviolent methods, that sort of thing, but they don’t come out and explicitly condemn these armed groups, either.

So you get a sense from them that they understand very well that Aristide’s position is weakening because of this armed rebellion, and they want him out, so it’s kind of tough for them to say outright that they’re not on the same team.

RAY SUAREZ: Guy Philippe, one of the leaders of the armed rebel groups, has said that he can enter Port-au-Prince and control much of the country in two weeks. Are these armed groups large enough to pull anything like that off?

MARTIN KASTE: The best estimates of their numbers is 200 to 300 men, but they’re 200 to 300 men who seem to be relatively well-armed and have some discipline. We’re not counting in that number the gangs that are sort of roaming places like the city of Gonaives. There are more of those, but they don’t have much discipline or hierarchy.

But I’ve been told here by a lot of the long-time Haiti watchers that 200 to 300 men is a significant force, especially in a country that abolished its army in the 1990s. So really all they have between the government and these groups are demoralized, under-equipped police force. So anything is possible.

RAY SUAREZ: And it says that for all the destruction of property, for all the violence and intimidation, the death toll has still been relatively small.

MARTIN KASTE: It is. And you hear repeated stories about these attacks on police stations in which a couple of police are killed and the rest are allowed to take off their uniforms and leave. I think the real potential for deadly violence comes when groups on either side of the political divide kind of go at it more in the dead of night, the retaliatory murders, that sort of thing. That’s where the real danger is in this situation.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Martin Kaste, in Port-au-Prince. Thanks a lot.

MARTIN KASTE: You’re welcome.