Q&A: What's behind the violent uprisings in Haiti?

As a violent uprising in Haiti continues to spread, the country's fragile peace looks as shaky as it has in a decade. Robert Maguire, Director of International Affairs & Haiti Programs at Trinity College in Washington DC, spoke with csmonitor.com's Seth Stern about the situation in Haiti.

What's causing the recent violence? How much is due to anger over the 2000 legislative election which President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's opponents charge was flawed?

The underlying cause is both economic and political. Politically, it does go back to the 2000 election and the government's inability to address that issue effectively and the opponents' inability to participate. It has created this growing crescendo of political polarization that in the past two months has reached the shouting point of violence and demonstrations in the street.

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The economic component is somewhat linked to those 2000 elections. Even before that and surely following that, most bilateral and multilateral assistance was cut off - including by the US. Some $500 million in developmental assistance was withheld and essentially this has been a resource starved government unable to invest in social welfare programs, infrastructure development and any other investments in the hemisphere's poorest country. This has obviously eroded support of the government since people expected it to deliver and it has been unable to accomplish virtually anything

Who is in the opposition to Aristide's rule?

The opposition is multi-faceted. The traditional political opposition which has been intransigently opposed to Aristide since 2000. You have the more elite opposition to Aristide which is led by more traditional elites - people from the business class and intellectuals - which has attracted people from middle and lower middle classes. They are all disaffected by corruption and the inability to meet the nation's needs.

The third component in this opposition, the one gaining headlines, is the violent gangs. These gangs are a very fluid bunch. They can shift alliances pretty easy. They're opportunistic gangs who view politics as a means of survival. Some of them had been affiliated with the government where as others had not. Among the gangs, we are currently seeing a resurgence of organized resistance comprising former Haitian military and paramilitary members.

Is there a danger that former military leaders could seize power?

Not in the immediate future. There is a real danger that whatever public security Haiti does have could erode. A beleaguered, corrupt, and weakened Haitian police force will be unable to withstand opponents who are quite well armed and in many different locations.

Is there any significance that the main site of violence is Gonaives, where a revolt against former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier began in 1985?

Gonaives has been a hot bed of political action since 1985. I think that what may be even more significant is the existence of gangs there. Some of them were born in the 1985 period. You've had some repeated episodes of violence.

What are Aristide's prospects?

His government has never been unchallenged, but this level of opposition accompanied by violence is the largest challenge his government has experienced since he was sworn in Feb. 2001 to a second term. I believe he is intent on hanging on and I believe that up until now he had the support of the principal international actors who continue to recognize his legitimacy. We should watch whether the Haitian government will appeal to the Organization of American States, since they are now characterizing the violence as an attempted coup d etat.

What are the prospects for a peaceful resolution?

The interesting question is how will the nonviolent opposition will respond to the increasing violence and chaos being done in their name. I haven't seen much of a response yet. There is a tendency in Haitian politics to step back and let violence spin out if you perceive it will help you meet your goals. That's why it's going to be very important to see what the opposition does - whether violence could push them to try to mediate a solution with Aristide.

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