Haiti: On the Brink
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JIM LEHRER: The crisis in Haiti. We begin with the situation on the ground. I spoke a short time ago with Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Lydia Polgreen, welcome.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: First, on President Aristide: Are there any signs today that he might go peacefully?
LYDIA POLGREEN: He has made every indication that he plans to stay in power. He spoke … he gave an interview to CNN earlier and he reiterated his commitment to hold onto the presidency and also to … has asked for international help to help quell the situation here in the capital. He has made absolutely no statement other than he plans to remain president of Haiti.
JIM LEHRER: And there are no signs around the edges that that is negotiable, as far as he is concerned?
LYDIA POLGREEN: There are no signs whatsoever from my conversations with people close to him. He is not making any plans to exit.
JIM LEHRER: What’s the word now on where the rebels are and what their plans are for coming in to Port-au-Prince?
LYDIA POLGREEN: Well, the rebels have been saying for days that they’re making plans to march on Port-au-Prince, but it’s sort of hard to judge how real that statement is because it’s not clear how many of them there are. I physically saw maybe a couple hundred when I was up in Cap-Haitien.
They claim there are more of them garrisoned in Hinche, which is in the central plateau, and perhaps more in Gonaives as well. But it’s very difficult to say exactly how many of them there are and where they might be at any given time. Some of them have fallen back into the mountains.
They’ve had a threatening posture, saying they’re going to march on Port-au-Prince if the president does not step down. But it’s very difficult to say when and whether they have enough manpower to do it.
JIM LEHRER: So you don’t have the feeling that anything is imminent?
LYDIA POLGREEN: I have not seen any men dressed in camouflage marching into the city, and until I see that, it’s pretty hard to say that it’s imminent.
JIM LEHRER: What’s going on in the city itself now? Are the people bracing for a big fight? Are they … or what?
LYDIA POLGREEN: People are extremely tense in Port-au-Prince. For much of the day, life seemed to go on as normal. But in the past hour or so, you’ve seen flaming barricades go up — people burn tires and block streets to keep traffic flowing at a glacial pace. You’ll see gangs of armed men who claim to be loyal to the president running around the city, directing traffic, in some cases robbing people. There have been reports of cameras stolen from journalists and things like that. It’s quite a tense atmosphere.
JIM LEHRER: What … there were reports on the wires today that many of the Haitian police who are there to protect the city and President Aristide have already deserted. Is that correct?
LYDIA POLGREEN: That is correct. I’ve had conversations with many policemen, and they are quite frightened. They are generally not very well armed. Many of them just have .38 revolvers and essentially a nightstick. And they’re not prepared to face soldiers — trained soldiers with M-16 rifles and things like that. So they are saying, “We’re not going to die for this regime. We’re going to protect ourselves.” They’re slipping out of their uniforms and running away.
JIM LEHRER: So if there is a fight, if there is a defense of Port-au-Prince militarily, it will be done by these folks you were talking about earlier, not by the organized police, is that right?
LYDIA POLGREEN: Yes. There are some riot police, some specially trained squads. They’re not believed to number more than a hundred of them. At this point I think that the strongest line of defense are these armed gangs and they do not have formal military training so the big fear, of course, is that there would just be … there would just be chaotic fighting by untrained people in the streets, which could lead to a lot of bystanders being killed.
JIM LEHRER: Is that an expectation now? Is that a given expectation?
LYDIA POLGREEN: It’s tough to say. You know, the rebels have threatened to march on Port-au-Prince, but there is no indication that they’ve actually begun marching on Port-au-Prince. It could be that they’re counting on the pressure that is mounting in the city to force Mr. Aristide to step down. He has not given any indication so far that he plans to do that, however.
JIM LEHRER: Are there any signs of people fleeing the country? What’s the latest read you have on that?
LYDIA POLGREEN: I was at the airport today where there were some flights going out on American Airlines. It was orderly. It was quite crowded. There were a lot of Haitian-Americans and Haitians.
Most of the foreigners have left already, the ones who were planning to leave. There were about 20,000 Americans in Haiti; most of them have left. There is not a lot of boat-building going on that we’re getting reports of. Apparently there was a boat that was intercepted off the coast of Florida, but that’s fairly minimal at this point.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, so if there is a storm to come, this is the calm before it. Is that essentially what you’re saying?
LYDIA POLGREEN: I believe so. It’s … the situation in Port-au-Prince is very tense, but at the moment it’s manageable.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, Lydia, thank you very much.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Thank you.