Haiti's Repressive Regime

The United States, which plays a dominant role in Haiti’s ruined economy, has backed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide up against the wall. Either he reforms his regime that has been turned into a bloody dictatorship where gangs of thugs and organized criminals have free rein, and do so “in the next few weeks or months,” as one American diplomatic source puts it, or else Washington will leave him to his fate, not necessarily waiting until the end of his second and last term, due to end in 2006. 

Despite these pressures, there is scarcely any hope that Aristide, who has already destroyed most of Haiti’s public institutions, will mend his ways. Last Friday, the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, and France enjoined him to respect an opposition demonstration on the main square of Port-au-Prince. Failing to keep any of his commitments, Aristide asked his supporters to pelt the demonstrators with stones, effectively silencing them. 

As a result, both the Americans and the Europeans will snub the Aristide regime by refusing to accompany the Haitian dictator on Nov. 18 to the site of  Vertières. It was here, two centuries ago, at the conclusion of one final battle, that Jean-Jacques Dessalines obtained from General Rochambeau the surrender of the French army, some 40,000 men strong, sent by Bonaparte to the island of Hispaniola to restore slavery there.

The commemoration of this victory of the “black Jacobins,” which opened the way to independence for Haiti on Jan. 1, 1804, was highly symbolic for Aristide, a defrocked priest who came to power in November 2000 with 92 percent of the votes of the electorate but whose regime has become a nightmare for 7.5 million Haitians, who have been plunged into abject misery. 

On Nov. 14, Port-au-Prince experienced one of those days that ritually mark a struggle that has gone on for two centuries. Leaders seem to flash up from out of nowhere, like Roman candles, then almost invariably morph into cruel despots who repay their opponents’ courage with exile and death.

The symbolic scene of this face-off is always the Champs de Mars, the only park in Port-au-Prince, a few acres of scraggly vegetation between the presidential palace and the French Embassy. It is a Garden of Eden in this capital that has become over the last 20 years one vast slum with open-air sewers, occasional electricity but scant running water, garbage strewn everywhere—a cesspool incomparably more inhumane than Soweto. Port-au-Prince is like Beirut, laid waste by civil war, without the bullet holes but with a life expectancy that continues to plummet (currently at 52 years).

On the rusty old jalopies that serve as public transportation here, the drivers have painted their mottos: “Haiti implores the understanding of its sons!” or “So much life, so many hopes....” Here, language is the only poetry of existence. Haiti was born of slavery, of human beings just barely deemed to be human. From their revolt two centuries ago, only anger remains. 

“The revolution in Haiti, where is it?” asks the journalist Nicole Siméon. “Ah, yes, you can say everybody is free here. But what about these millions of poor and illiterate people? Isn’t this another form of slavery?” 

And so, last Friday, we had a rendez-vous with the revolt, on the Champs de Mars. The opposition, christened the “Group of 184,” has brought together almost every social class for the first time in Haiti’s history: whites, blacks, mulattoes, Catholic and Protestant churches, unions representing teachers, peasants, and workers, industrial leaders, human-rights organizations. “A gathering of notables, still cut off from the people,” in the view of Father Pierre Le Bellec of the Confraternity of the Brothers of Saint James.

But Haitian “civil society”—consisting of more than 350 diverse organizations—is united against Aristide and stands behind André Apaid, a highly respected 52-year-old businessman. “We want to organize a neutral transition, with or without Aristide, to understand how we have come to this point; we want to build a new state, to strengthen and normalize the political life of this country,” Apaid has said. “Haiti is at the bottom of a hole and Aristide’s goal is the absolute control of power. That’s criminal!”

When solicited, neither Aristide nor those close to him were willing to speak. On Thursday, Nov. 13, the president’s advisers had agreed to allow the first major demonstration by the Group of 184 to proceed peacefully in the capital. James Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, had sounded the warning: “We exhort the authorities of the state to honor the promise made by President Aristide to allow and to protect the freedom of expression. The international community will closely watch these demonstrations.” 

But even as Friday dawned, Aristide had ordered that access to the city be blocked by parking trucks crosswise on the roadways, which brought traffic to a standstill, causing a huge traffic jam. Then the chimères, his armed gangs recruited from the worst slums, poured into the Champs de Mars.

The sound equipment and stages of the Group of 184 were confiscated. Apaid, as he arrived in the square, was insulted by thousands of entranced thugs who were yelling, “Aristide the king!” Finally, a few thousand opponents managed to assemble in front of the French Embassy before being bombarded with a hailstorm of rocks or large pieces of gravel. 

Political intolerance—a holdover from the figure of the African chieftain, where weapons and money are the symbols of absolute power—is nothing new in Haiti, but for the last two years, it has taken on appalling forms. First, the former priest monopolized the state’s budget, 60 percent of which he now controls personally. After dissolving the army in 1994, Aristide created for himself a police force that numbers some 5,300 men. He dismissed well-trained officers from the police, appointing former bodyguards or even patrolmen in their stead to head up the force. “They are absolutely worthless,” observed a French foreign aid worker. 

Finally, to terrorize his adversaries, or to kill them or make them get out of the way, he had thousands of unemployed men recruited from the slums, whom he grouped into vigilante gangs often named after frightening voodoo spirits. On a very regular basis, he gets rid of any of their leaders who have grown too powerful by having them killed and then ordering their bodies to be mutilated. 

That was what happened on Sept. 22, when Amiot Métayer, the leader of the so-called Cannibal Army [a prominent pro-government vigilante gang] was riddled with bullets not far from the third largest city in the country, Gonaïves, where he had been terrorizing the people. “As soon as Aristide feels he is in a tight spot, he liquidates his most lucid hired hands; each time, he becomes more radical as he surrounds himself with people who are less and less competent,” explained one Western diplomat.

Faced with this destructive anarchy, the Americans have sent a sort of ultimatum to one of the worst dictators in the Caribbean. “The situation is critical, and the decisions that Mr. Aristide will have to make in the weeks and months to come will weigh heavily on what comes next,” the diplomat added, denying that the election campaign of George W. Bush might lead the U.S. administration to remain passive in the face of this organized chaos.

The hour of reckoning is approaching for this defrocked priest. All those who know him tell of his desire to go down in the history of his country and, in particular, to be the man who lavishly celebrated the 200th anniversary of the first black revolution. Today, the Americans and the Europeans will not take part in the first event in these celebrations. It is just one more way of reminding Aristide that humiliation and tyranny are no longer in fashion.