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Reckoning for Aristide

Gangs of rebels are taking over the cities in the north, while in the capital the president's squads are violently suppressing dissent. The former Caribbean paradise that believed it could rise again after decades of dictatorships has lost hope. Unless there's an intervention from the outside...

by Vito Taormina

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Welcome to Haiti, kingdom of the devil: on the island once defined as a Caribbean paradise, on the bicentennial of its independence, around 70 percent of the population is unemployed, and 13 percent of children do not reach the age of 5. One in 16 people has AIDS, and life expectancy is 51.6 years, unless you are killed before that.

Welcome to Haiti, the kingdom of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide: in Port-au-Prince, you can visit hospitals where in the maternity ward, under the ventilators, newborns are lying on the ground covered by a sheet that should be a bedsheet, but often there are not enough mattresses for everyone. Here, those in need of care are left on the ground to die because this is the hospital for the poor and, therefore, is lacking everything: there is a shortage of bandages and adhesive plasters, and there are no needles or syringes. Those who can afford it go elsewhere.

A little further on, you can peep through the white and blue walls of the Delmas 33 barracks, the site of summary executions and torture chambers, where police officers enjoy locking up prisoners with groups of ferocious dogs. "A few days ago, the dismembered remains of a street child were found on a heap of garbage not far from the police station," whisper the residents of the neighborhood. Around them, burnt-out car carcasses.

Welcome to Haiti, where reality is a nightmare. Where children smile little on the streets of the slums, where houses are made of cardboard, where there is no running water, electricity, or gas. Where the sewers are open, and the mud reaches your knees. Where a Westerner understands the difference between poverty and destitution. In Cité Soleil, children walk for miles barefoot with a bucket of water on their heads, beg in dusty expanses, abandon their families to escape poverty, and end up victims of prostitution.

But this is not the only violence. The "Cannibal Army," the militia that revolted against the president, has now conquered the city of Gonaives (200,000 inhabitants), and other rebels have taken Hinche, while in Port-au-Prince, there is a peace march organized by representatives of the opposition and spokespeople of the political world and civil society who are fighting against the government. There are also university students who started the peaceful protest on December 5th, sedated with the rifles of the "chimères," the pro-governmental gangs, and Aristide's private police force. Now the university is closed. "The rector's legs were broken," says Jean-Maxim Bernard, a professor of anthropology, who now makes a living by guiding foreign journalists' crews.

The peaceful march will never start because, as usual, the "chimères," the demons unleashed by Aristide to stifle any dissent, win. Hired for a handful of dollars in rural areas or in slums, often very young, they roam the capital aboard powerful off-road vehicles: they are armed, illiterate, and willing to do anything. They block the procession, set tires on fire, throw stones, beat demonstrators who try to bypass the blocks, shoot in the air, and then dance and sing: "Another five years for Aristide."

Indeed, the president's term is five years. Aristide has two left, but the opposition does not want to wait, especially because in the cities of the North, the Cannibal Army has formed alliances with other anti-Aristide groups. And in this corner of the world, power is taken by whoever arrives first.

Evans Paul, the leader of the Kid, one of the six parties in the Convergence, the opposition political coalition, has a drawn face after yet another protest was stifled by the regime. He makes an appeal to the UN: "We are living in a climate of terror. We want a civil society, but we must defeat the government. The presidential palace is a center of criminal decisions, of systematic oppression. The country is in chaos and the population must be protected. Help us."

In Port-au-Prince, opposition leaders distance themselves from the rebel armies leading the riots in Gonaives and other northern cities. But Aristide's Lavalas party accuses: "There is a connection, a political design that unites rebels and opposition."

Andy Apaid is the leader of the Group of 184, the large umbrella that gathers numerous entities of civil society, including merchants, industrialists, professionals, unions, students, artists, and ordinary people. "Aristide is a criminal machine," says Apaid, an industrialist by profession and a politician by passion. "With only one goal: to suppress all movements of civil society. This is a government that opens the barracks to the poor to arm them, to turn them into chimeras. The government says that we are the violent ones? We are the ones they shoot every time we try to meet. Our approach is that of Gandhi, our philosophy that of Martin Luther King: we too have a dream."

But in Haiti, an armed revolution is underway: blood flows in the forests, in the northern cities. The strongest group, the one that has taken control of Gonaives, the city of independence, is the Cannibal Army. This paramilitary army until a few months ago was on Aristide's side: its leader, Amiot Métayer, was regularly received at the palace. Until Aristide began to fear that Métayer might become too powerful. So, last September, the leader of the Cannibal Army was assassinated, but his brother, Buteur Métayer, swore revenge. On February 5, in Gonaives, Buteur led the Army (now called the Resistance Front) against government forces and conquered the city. Since then, the country has become a powder keg.

If the chimeras terrorize Port-au-Prince, the stronghold of the government, in other cities armed gangs set fire to barracks and gas stations, while the first mass graves are discovered. In northern towns, guerrilla squads have joined the armed struggle while ex-rulers and military personnel in exile such as Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Guy Philippe have entered Haiti from the Dominican Republic and are hiring guerrillas along the way. In this spiral of chaos, the forces on the chessboard increase every day, fueling uncertainty about the future of the country.

For all of them, Jean-Bertrand Aristide is the man who betrayed Haiti. The former Catholic priest of Cité Soleil, 14 years ago, after centuries of occupations, regimes, and coups culminating in almost 30 years of dictatorship, had promised a dream: democracy. He seemed to be able to do it. In 1990, for the first time, Haitians went to the polls: they voted for him. And independent press was also born, inconceivable in the days of the Duvaliers.

Short dream, democracy. In September 1991, the usual coup d'état. Aristide flees protected by the United States. He returns to Haiti in 1994 with the help of 20,000 US soldiers. But the "second" Aristide is no longer the populist priest, he is a wealthy man, corrupted and with fat bank accounts in the tax havens of the Caribbean. And he is a man who systematically persecutes the Haitian press opposed to the regime. The accusation: disinformation. Many journalists are under arrest, others have been tortured and killed. In January, the equipment of 11 independent radio stations worth $550,000 was destroyed. In Haiti, doing politics or journalism means being willing to risk one's own life and that of family and friends. Because they shoot wives, children, and drivers.

And then there's the religious issue. Aristide has imposed voodoo as the official state religion. People whisper that tribal rituals take place inside the presidential palace, but it is certain that such celebrations also take place in some Catholic churches.

"Some priests celebrate mass with a gun under their cassock," explains Alessandra Terzino, a Genoese who has been courageously fighting in the surreal reality of Haiti for many years. "Lavalas" in Creole means a torrent in full flood: it is the name of Aristide's party. Which today is really overwhelming everything: society, the people, the economy, religion, institutions. Nothing exists in Haiti anymore.

Sincla, 62, works as a waiter in one of the few hotels in Port-au-Prince (tourism is now almost non-existent). He has seven children, aged 17 to 30, and they are all unemployed. He almos
t regrets the days of the Duvaliers, of the tyrant Papa Doc, that Haiti described by Graham Greene in The Comedians. "People are tired of violence, demonstrations, protests, and everything else," he says. "What we want in Haiti is one thing only: peace." It is difficult to be fulfilled. Unless the increasingly insistent rumors of a humanitarian intervention by the American army become reality.

Rise and fall of a tyrant

Former priest expelled from the Salesians, Aristide is accused of fraud and all kinds of violence.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide is 50 years old. After studying theology, sociology, and psychology in Canada, England, Italy, and Israel, at 29 he becomes a Salesian priest.

In Port-au-Prince, he begins his activity against the Duvalier family regime. His oratorical skills awaken the consciences of millions of Haitians, while in 1988 he is expelled from the Salesian order.

In 1990 he wins the elections and is elected president, but seven months later a military coup forces him to flee first to Venezuela and then to the United States.

Aristide returns to Haiti in 1994 with the help of the US army, and in 1995 he completes his first term. The subsequent presidential elections are won by René Préval, who for five years is an ally of Aristide. Aristide runs again in the 2000 elections and wins, but the opposition denounces fraud.

For all of them, Jean-Bertrand Aristide is the man who betrayed Haiti.


A country on the brink

AIDS, unemployment, and terrible living conditions are the main plagues of the Caribbean country.

Area: 27,750 sq km

Population: 7.5 million (42.7% of whom are under 14 years old)

Population growth rate: 1.67%

Population median age: 17.9 years

Infant mortality rate: 7.6%

Life expectancy: 51.6 years

AIDS patients: 6.1%

Illiterate: 47.1%

GDP: 10.6 billion dollars

GDP per capita: 1,400 dollars

GDP growth: -0.9%

Population below poverty line: 80%

Inflation: 11.9%

Unemployment: over 66%

Telephone subscriptions: 60,000

Cell phones: 180,000

Internet users: 30,000

Railways: 40 km

Highways: 4,160 km

Airports: 12 (but only two have an asphalt runway)

Police members: 94,000 (the army, navy, and air force have been demobilized)

Military spending: 50 million dollars

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