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HAITI
Revolt against Aristide
James Joseph
8/27/2002
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Protests and a spectacular jailbreak reveal the ugly side of Lavalas Family politics.

"On Dec. 16, the National Palace called us at midnight. They told us to lock down the city. They told us to crush the opposition. If anyone should be arrested, it’s Aristide."

As a crowd formed in the middle of the Raboteau neighborhood of Gonaïves, Jean Simeon, a 54-year-old mason, bitterly explained how slum residents had been awakened in December and told to attack opposition party headquarters to defend President Jean-Bertrand Aristide — and why, eight months later, members of the heavily armed "Cannibal Army" had broken into the city prison to free their leader, Amiot Metayer, then paralyzed Gonaïves with burning barricades and protests to demand the president’s resignation.

During the three-year military government (1991-94) they were willing to die for Aristide, but in August, Simeon, Metayer and other residents of this impoverished seaside slum became vehement anti-government activists. Their reversal reflects a sense of betrayal that is increasingly common throughout Haiti. It also exposes the underbelly of the Lavalas political machine, which relies on armed gangs operating with impunity.

On July 1, the Organization of American States (OAS) released a 60-page report on the Dec. 17 attack on the National Palace (LP, Aug. 12, 2002). Metayer — who had been one of Aristide’s staunchest allies — is mentioned in the report, along with dozens of other people, many of them officials.

After the attack, government supporters struck back at opposition party members and headquarters throughout the country. The government said the attack had been a coup attempt and praised the mobs, while the opposition claimed the coup was fabricated to justify the rampage, in which at least 10 people died.

OAS investigators concluded that the attack was not a coup attempt and that there was police complicity. It also said that government authorities and members of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party assisted the marauding mobs by distributing arms and gasoline and providing transportation.

The Raboteau "revolt" started on July 2, when Metayer was tricked into thinking that Aristide wanted to see him and was then arrested by Port-au-Prince authorities. While National Palace officials claimed that he was arrested for a common crime, most Haitians saw him as a scapegoat.

"We ask the international community that condemned the Dec. 17 events to arrest Aristide, not us," Simeon said, as the crowd shouted, "Aristide is a traitor."

The Aristide government has been under considerable pressure from the OAS and United States, but Metayer was the first person arrested. The OAS investigators said that after the palace raid, Metayer had led attacks in Gonaïves in which armed assailants burned several buildings and murdered a local opposition party member.

Metayer, meanwhile, turned against his former patron, issuing statements from his cell while his supporters, who called themselves the Cannibal Army, mobilized with graffiti, barricades, the ransacking of a customs house and demonstrations.

A delegation from the National Palace negotiated a temporary peace in mid-July, and for a week or so the chants of "Down with Aristide!" were replaced by "Long live Aristide, but free Metayer!"

Then, on Aug. 2, the Cannibal Army hijacked a tractor and smashed it through a prison wall to free Metayer and about 160 other prisoners, keeping police and prison guards at bay with automatic weapons. They also sacked and set fires at the courthouse and City Hall, and torched a police car and the city’s only garbage truck.

Police failed to stop the ensuing demonstrations, which on Aug. 5 swelled to thousands of protesters, and recaptured only 10 of the escapees. For a week, burning barricades marked the borders of the seaside slum neighborhoods. Metayer and his supporters called for the country "to rise up together, because Aristide must go."

"Tell the Americans to take their trash back," one woman said, referring to the 1994 US military occupation that allowed Aristide to return after the coup.

Anti-government demonstrations in Petit-Goâve and L’Estère the same week fueled speculation that the unrest might spread across the nation.

Human rights workers were shocked to see Metayer leading demonstrations with another escapee, Jean Tatoune. Tatoune had been serving a life sentence for his part in the 1994 "Raboteau massacre," in which soldiers and paramilitaries attacked Aristide supporters, targeting Metayer, who was a resistance leader during the coup.

Asked about his alliance with Tatoune, Metayer told the Associated Press that they were fighting a common enemy: Aristide.

National Palace spokesmen, who had hailed Metayer’s followers after the Dec. 17 rampage, now called them "bandits and delinquents" and blamed the opposition and the international community for backing the demonstrations.

But even as Metayer’s troops mobilized and he vowed that no money could buy his allegiance to the "ungrateful" Aristide, another conversation was taking place. On Aug. 10, Metayer announced a two-month truce and National Palace officials said they would negotiate with him, rather than arresting the fugitive and gang members as the OAS, United States and human rights organizations demanded.

With or without Metayer, however, popular discontent and frustration with the Lavalas government and with deteriorating living conditions are sparking new demonstrations.

The Aristide administration faces increasing isolation as it tries to gain international support at the start of a third year of OAS-sponsored negotiations with opposition parties over contested elections (LP, July 31, 2000).

Meanwhile, the country is sliding further into economic and social chaos.

—From Gonaïves, James Joseph


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Metayer (left) with his former
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