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Haiti: A Fractured Nation

February 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Once again, the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti is caught up in political bloodshed.

For two weeks, rebel groups have been attacking and sometimes capturing cities and towns. The rebels say they want to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, accusing him of betraying promises to run a democratic government. The threat to Aristide is the strongest and most violent since he was returned to power nearly a decade ago by the United States.

Haiti’s fourth largest city, Gonaives, is under rebel control. Fighting has spread since early February to 11 other towns. The death toll has reached at least 50.

So far, the capital, Port-au-Prince, has remained relatively calm, with displays of opposition in the form of mostly peaceful protests. The rebels have looted and torched police stations and erected flaming roadblocks. One of their self-proclaimed leaders said Haitians are losing patience with their economic condition. Some 80 percent of the country’s 8 million people live in poverty, and the country is the poorest in the hemisphere and among the poorest in the world.

“TIWILL,” rebel leader: We are here to secure the population and help feed the people. We can’t feed everyone, but we are trying. The people are suffering because there is no transport to bring food in. The people must wait until President Jean-Bertrand Aristide leaves.

RAY SUAREZ: Fighting back are pro-Aristide gangs, called chimeres, and the country’s 5,000-member police, the only national force since Aristide disbanded the army. They claim to have regained control of several towns, including the northern port of Caphatien.

JOSEPH PIERRE, Aristide supporter: The situation is good for us. We don’t want to see the opposition. Whenever we see anybody from the opposition, we want to cut off their heads and burn their houses down.

RAY SUAREZ: Aid agencies have warned the fighting has hampered the delivery of fuel and food to many Haitians. International donors, including the U.S. and European Union, suspended aid after flawed parliamentary elections four years ago. The country has been functioning without a parliament since last year, and the main political opposition has refused to participate in new elections until Aristide resigns. But he has said he will serve out his term, which ends in 2006.

PRES. JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I call on my brothers who are in the opposition to stop that violence, to start dialogue, realizing that we don’t have any other way to solve the political crisis. If we don’t want to have dialogue, consensus, compromise so democratic and peaceful way to move ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, he was first elected in 1990, winning a landslide with massive support from the poor. But that brief experiment in democracy after three decades of dictatorship and military rule ended in another coup.

But in September 1994, as a U.S. invasion fleet awaited offshore, a U.S. delegation appointed by President Clinton, that included Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell, persuaded the military leaders to leave and Aristide to return as president. And it was Secretary of State Powell, on Friday, who asserted that the United States would not tolerate a coup in Haiti. His comments followed a meeting with Caribbean officials.

COLIN POWELL: We all have a commitment to the democratic process in Haiti, and we will accept no outcome that is not consistent with the constitution. We will accept no outcome that, in any way, illegally attempts to remove the elected president of Haiti.

RAY SUAREZ: Powell’s comments followed assertions earlier in the week from administration officials indicating the U.S. would not play a military role in this latest Haitian crisis.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Needless to say, everyone is hopeful that the situation, which tends to ebb and flow down there, will stay below a certain threshold, and that there’s — we have no plans to do anything. By that, I don’t mean we have no plans. Obviously, we have plans to do everything in the world that we can think of. But we — there’s no intention at the present time, or no reason to believe, that any of the thinking that goes into these things year in and year out would have to be utilized.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, the rebels insist they’ll only stop their fight when Aristide steps down.

RAY SUAREZ: For more now on the developments in Haiti, we get two views. Alex Dupuy is a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University specializing in development, the Caribbean and Haiti. Born in Haiti, he’s now an American citizen. And Robert Maguire is director of the Haiti program at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. He has consulted on Haiti and Caribbean issues for both government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Professor Dupuy, the last time Haiti was regularly in the news in the United States and featured large in our foreign policy might have been almost ten years ago now when, with the help of American troops, President Aristide was restored to power. What happened between that optimistic time in the mid-’90s and now to lead Haiti back to where it is again?

ALEX DUPUY: Well, basically the problem stems from the crisis in 2000 brought about by the parliamentary elections of May 2000 and the November presidential elections of November of that same year where the OAS had observed the balloting of May 2000 and found that seven seats were wrongly assigned to the ruling party or to the party of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the OAS demanded a rerun of the seven seats in the second round. But the then independent election council refused and the government of President Preval also refused to reverse the ruling of the CEP and as a result the OAS boycotted the second round of the parliamentary elections and also the presidential elections of November.

The opposition parties, coalesced into the Democratic Convergence and later into the Civil Society Group of 184, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the entire elections and not just the seven seats and also because they boycotted both the second round and the presidential elections they refused to recognize Aristide’s reelection as president of Haiti. Since then, they have been calling for Aristide’s resignation from office and basically have been unable or unwilling rather to enter into a serious negotiation with him to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Aristide, for his part, where I think he went wrong, was to have recourse to his armed gangs, the supporters known as the chimeres to basically intimidate the opposition, and the fact that he used violence led to a spiraling crisis basically of violence met by more violence on the opposition side and more violence on the part of Aristide supporters, and despite efforts by the OAS to mediate the crisis from 2000 on, they have not been able to bring the two parties to the table.

The opposition parties, for their part, were supported by the United States in mainly the International Republican Institute and the USAID which supported them and also they received some funding for the European Union. As a result of that they saw no need to really enter into negotiations with Aristide because the U.S. made it clear to them that they would not recognize an outcome to the conflict that did not include the opposition parties.

So in that sense even though they represented, if you will, at the time a minority of the population, they really had no incentives to enter into a serious negotiations with Aristide.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn to Bob Maguire at this point.


RAY SUAREZ: You’ve got Aristide’s national police force and as Professor Dupuy mentioned his irregular gangs on the street. Now the rebel side of the equation is attracting new armed men and growing larger in some of these provincial cities. Is this a country on the verge of all-out civil war?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: Well certainly there’s regional areas for the potential of a civil war. These gangs that are now fighting against the government at one time some of their members were aligned with the government. But Mr. Aristide I think under some international pressure had begun last summer to try to reel in some of these gangs. One of the brothers of one of the gang leaders in Gonaives was murdered allegedly at the hands of Mr. Aristide’s government.

In this sense some of those gangs that had been loyal are now against him. Joining those gangs now as the piece demonstrated that you showed before our interview is the fact that you have some nefarious characters coming over from the Dominican Republic who are well-armed and have military experience. This could change the calculus of the situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Is Aristide someone who is able to regain control of the situation, run a Haitian government that has effective day-to-day civil control of the country?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: At this point, Ray, I think that’s questionable. The country is so deeply polarized, so deeply split, I think that maybe Mr. Aristide has to take some very dramatic action to indicate that he can have the credibility that he needs for others to engage him and to move forward.

You know, the opposition, as Alex mentioned, has not really engaged Mr. Aristide in trying to resolve this crisis that emanated out of elections in 2000. But then again, Mr. Aristide has not fully lived up to some of the things that he said. So I think he does have a bit of a credibility problem with the opposition and it seems to me that there is an onus on Mr. Aristide to make some dramatic action now. He has pledged some action to the group of commonwealth Caribbean nations, the Caricom Group.

On Feb. 1, he met with representatives of Caricom in Jamaica and coming out of that is something that’s being called the Kingston Plan, which is where Mr. Aristide would reel in the gangs, he would support the resumption of negotiations with his opponents to create an interim governing council that could name a prime minister and that could lead the country to some kind of elections with Mr. Aristide maintaining his role as president and that the national police would be supported, the police would be built up again.

I think that it’s now somewhat the responsibility of the opposition to respond to this as well. Mr. Aristide has agreed with Caricom that he will do these things. It might be very helpful however if Mr. Aristide would demonstrate some action to do something to give confidence to every one else that he will move forward.

RAY SUAREZ: You noted in your opening remarks, Professor Dupuy, that the United States has begun to pull back on its support for the Aristide government yet at the same time in the last couple of days Secretary of State Powell said the United States will accept no outcome that attempts to remove the elected president of Haiti. So while they don’t support him, they also don’t support him being removed?

ALEX DUPUY: Well that’s correct. This is the first clear policy we’ve heard from the Clinton, from the Bush administration on the situation in Haiti. Up to Friday’s statement by Secretary of State Powell, the Bush administration had in fact been sending very mixed signals to both the opposition and to President Aristide.

As I said before, throughout the negotiations the U.S. always blamed President Aristide for the breakdown in negotiations when, in fact, the opposition also had a role to play in that. As Bob Maguire mentioned, Aristide does suffer from a credibility problem with the opposition and that’s justifiable because of the violence that his supporters have meted out to the opposition members. But nonetheless the opposition also has refused to negotiate seriously with Aristide. As a result both sides have been locked into a sort of a dialogue, if you will, of the deaf. They’re talking past each other. No one wants to listen to the other side.

That said, it is a welcome statement by Secretary of State Powell to suggest that the resolution of the crisis must be done through a peaceful negotiations and rather than through violence because, as you mentioned in your opening statement, President Aristide has said that he will not resign. He will carry out his — the remaining of his five-year term and the opposition needs to be pressured by its supporters, principally in this case the United States to also come to the negotiating table. Otherwise the violence will continue to spiral and indeed bring Haiti on the brink of a civil war.

So there is no viable alternative to negotiations, and at this point I believe that even though President Aristide was certainly wrong to have had recourse to the violent gangs who support him, it is difficult to imagine that he would seriously crack down on those gangs when, in fact, he’s now facing an uprising not only by a former gang members who supported him at one point, as Bob mentioned, but now joined by former members of the Haitian — the army and the paramilitary death squads that were allowed with the military during the three years of Aristide’s — of the coup d’etat against Aristide.

So the only way to resolve the crisis is for the U.S. not only to bring pressure on President Aristide to make goodwill gestures towards the opposition, which he must do, but they also need to put pressure on the opposition to realize once and for all that only a negotiated solution can bring an end to the crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the United States indispensable in intervening in this at this point? Do you share this?

ROBERT MAGUIRE: Absolutely, Ray. The U.S. is an indispensable actor and I would very much agree with Alex that the political calculus that changed in Washington after 1994 really did hurt the Clinton administration initiatives that restored Mr. Aristide. There were constraints put up against those initiatives almost immediately after the Republicans took the House of Representatives in ’94 and it was in part perhaps to undermine Clinton policy but it ended up undermining Haiti. Mr. Aristide and the Haitians were pretty much left to their own devices as the U.S. had a policy of no mission creep, no nation building and a quick exit strategy.

We’re seeing that particularly those chickens coming home to roost when it comes to the Haitian national police. That began as a very, very positive initiative in bringing police under civilian control, strengthening the police force and getting some good people in there. I still think there are remnants of those good people in there, but that force is beleaguered, it’s corrupt, and it might be outmatched by some of these commandos that have come in.

RAY SUAREZ: Bob Maguire, Professor Dupuy, thank you both.