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HAITI
Another Occupation
Jane Regan
3/11/2004
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Washington says Aristide left of his own free will but the former president claims he was kidnapped.

Early on Feb. 29, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hustled into a sedan and taken to the airport. As the sun came up, the small, 50-year-old former parish priest handed a letter of resignation to a US Embassy staffer and boarded a plane which had been chartered by Washington.

In a country with a history of 32 coup d’etats, Aristide — coup number 33 — became the first Haitian president to be thrown out twice.

A day after Aristide flew out — Washington says on his own, he says he was “kidnapped” — the ex-president was in the Central African Republic, US Marines were in charge of the National Palace and prime minister’s office. At the same time, Humvees and tanks were rolling off cargo planes, rebel soldiers were parading through the streets to the cheers of “Long live the army!,” armed gangs were destroying downtown businesses, looting millions of dollars worth of everything from Mazdas to humanitarian aid and opposition politicians were arguing about who would become prime minister.

Opinions on the prospects for a peaceful transition vary as wildly as do the stories of who is lynching who and who is pulling strings.

According to a plan proposed by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and promoted by the “Group of Six” — the Organization of American States, CARICOM, the European Union, the United States, Canasa and France — a “tripartite committee” with representatives of the opposition, Aristide’s Lavalas Family party and the “international community” that will approve a “Council of Eminent Persons.” They in turn will pick out a prime minister and a cabinet who will eventually choose an Electoral Council which will finally oversee elections.

“The entire process is totally ridiculous,” said human rights lawyer Samuel Madistin. He was once a member of Aristide’s party and served two parliamentary terms, one in the lower house and once as a senator. He later became an outspoken critic of Aristide and the Lavalas party.

“We are in what I call an undeclared ‘exceptional period,’” he continued. “All of these committees are extra-constitutional and illegal, but none of the authorities has the courage to say that.”

As of March 4, the country had as “president” a Supreme Court judge nobody had ever heard of, and from whom nobody has heard since he was sworn in unconstitutionally on Feb. 29. Because almost all parliamentary mandates expired, there is no legislature to serve as witness, so Judge Boniface Alexandre is not president, according to Madistin.

Still, opposition politicians are hopeful a transition can happen.

“I’m optimistic,” said Evans Paul, former Aristide ally and mayor of the capital during Aristide’s first term (1991-1996) which was interrupted by a three-year coup d’etat. Paul became a vehement Aristide opponent and vocal member of the opposition.

On March 4 the flamboyant and charismatic speaker — some say a future presidential candidate — was in the middle of a meeting.

“Right now we are in the stage of choosing a prime minister,” he said. “We have already accomplished two points of the CARICOM plan.”

But as politicians huddle with diplomats, much of the country is in turmoil. The rebel soldiers — some former policemen, many of them former soldiers from the army Aristide disbanded in 1995, and at least some with reputed drug-trafficking connections — have said they will turn in their guns. But with an unconstitutional president, a nearly invisible police force and foreign soldiers who say they do not have a policing mandate, it is unclear who would receive the hundreds of pistols, rifles and automatic weapons his men have brandished in clashes and parades around the country.

In the meantime, insecurity continues. In the countryside, highway robberies are frequent and humanitarian organizations are afraid to distribute much-needed food and medicines.

“People are literally starving,” said the United Nations World Food Program’s Alejandro Chicheri. “Prices in the north have gone up 20 to 30 percent. This affects the most vulnerable people.”

In the capital, armed gangs, looters and police continued to struggle for control of certain neighborhoods. Looters led by a right-wing political leader, Rev. Vladimir Jeanty of the Party of God, ravaged a new museum full of voodoo artifacts to shouts of “Down with Satan, up with Jesus!”

And US army tanks sit on the lawn of the National Palace and the prime minister’s office. The smell of occupation is in the air.

“Right now the group which has the most strength is the one in control, and that’s the US,” Madistin said. “And the US said clearly, the soldiers are here to protect US, not Haitian interests.”

As with the previous occupations, this time around it means assuring a stable and friendly government takes over. During the 1915-1934 occupation, Marines more or less picked out presidents, and during the 1994-1997 US and UN troop presence, the “international community” had people in all the ministries.

“It is clear that the main objective of the US is stability in the region,” reflected Alix Rene, professor at the State University’s Faculty of Human Sciences. “Each of the interventions occurs where the political system is in crisis, when the political elite are unable to assure the management of the system.”

But as US troops stand by while neighborhoods continue to be terrorized by gun-toting thugs and the same police accused of drug-running and torture patrol the streets, grumbling about the foreign presence has already started.

“I would like to see us Haitianize the Haitian problem,” said Madistin. “We need to take our own affairs in hand.”

But Rene, who recently wrote a book about Aristide and populism in Haiti, is skeptical about any quick fixes, with or without foreign troops and tutelage.

The Haitian political system is very unstable because “the Haitian state, ever since it was founded in 1804, has existed to exploit and repress the masses,” he said. “The culture of an absolute boss in Haiti is a very tough thing to get around. I don’t think an intervention will have any impact on it.”


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