Haiti's rebels stick to their guns
In the absence of sufficient international forces, armed rebels began patrolling Port-au-Prince Tuesday.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — The guns were out and on full display as Haiti's rebel armies entered the capital Monday, now claiming the cloak of liberators.
"The truth is that without those guns we would still be living under the despot," says Vladimir Desir, a liberal arts student, watching a throng of mostly young people celebrate with dance and song the ouster of ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the triumphant arrival of the rebels who helped remove him.
"We have become disappointed by every head of state we have had, and then the guns force them out," he adds, no joy in his voice. "It's the story of Haiti."
But now the guns - sidearms, automatic rifles, machine guns - look likely to be one of the first problems that Haiti after Mr. Aristide must confront.
The rebels had said they would lay down their arms once Aristide was gone. But Tuesday rebel leader Guy Philippe proclaimed himself commander in chief of the reestablished Haitian Army. He claimed constitutional authority for the move, noting that although Aristide dissolved the military in 1995, the constitution was never revised to exclude it. Rebel forces moved into the former Army headquarters in downtown Port-au-Prince across from the National Palace. Tuesday, Mr. Philippe's supporters began patrolling parts of the capital where pro-Aristide supporters live.
Some Haitians blame the international community for not arriving fast enough to stabilize a chaotic country, thereby leaving a security vacuum for the tainted but charismatic rebels to fill.
"The security forces of the international community haven't shown up yet, and it's causing us a lot of problems," says Hans Tippenhauer, a member of the steering committee of the Group of 184, a collection of civil society organizations and a key opposition force to the ousted Aristide.
US marines, and French and Canadian troops have arrived, and by Tuesday were guarding some key installations but not performing peacekeeping functions. In Washington, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimated between 1,500 and 2,000 US troops would go to Haiti for a "relatively short period." They would participate in an interim force, which could include as many as 5,000 troops from several countries, until replaced by a UN peacekeeping force.
Haiti's rebel leaders - Philippe and Louis Jodel Chamblain, among others - held court poolside Monday at one of Port-au-Prince's hilltop hotels. Watching the discussion, Mr. Tippenhauer added, "We said all along that Haiti's transition would be an inclusive one, so we have to talk to these people. They will be a part of any new security force."
In 1995, when Aristide disbanded the army that had carried out a coup against him, the idea - backed by the US - was to build a clean and efficient national police to take charge of the country's security. But an untrusting Aristide organized and armed a personal militia. Corruption was rife and some former military officers who became police chiefs - such as Philippe - gradually dropped out or fled into exile to form insurgent forces.
The rebels are also accused of human rights violations and drug trafficking - accusations a smiling Philippe, who is married to an American, denies.
Over the past decade Haiti has become an important transfer point in the Caribbean drug trade, supplying an estimated 20 percent of the cocaine entering the US. And while the political opposition to Aristide had a role in his downfall, in the end it was the rebel force, in a mortal fight with Aristide militias (and, many Haitians believe, with at least moral support from the US) that forced out the embattled president.
Aristide, in exile in the Central African Republic, has caused a stir by his claim that he did not "resign" his post and leave Haiti voluntarily, as the US claims, but was taken by force from his home and put on a plane. Several Democratic members of Congress say the US "kidnapped" Aristide, while insisting that the rebels are criminals and "thugs" that cannot be allowed any role in Haiti.
But Luis Moreno, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Haiti, says that he's "very disappointed" in Aristide's claims. Mr. Moreno says there was no force involved in Aristide's departure. He says he was cordially greeted Sunday when he arrived at Aristide's house, where bags were already packed. "I said to the president, 'I'm sorry it has come to this.' He says Aristide replied, 'Sometimes life is like that.' "
Just what form Haiti's new security forces will take remains unclear. Some Haitians argue disbanding the army was a bad idea. And the unilateral reestablishment of the Haitian Army is another sign that disarming the rebels may be difficult.
"We won't put down our arms until the chimères are disarmed and are no longer terrorizing the people," says Revix Remissantte, a captain in the rebel force.
Obviously well-known in the capital's law enforcement circles, Mr. Remissantte was greeted with bear hugs and smiles as he arrived Monday at the national police headquarters - supposedly a focal point of the rebels' enemies.
US Ambassador James Foley says the "credibility is on the line" of rebel leaders like Philippe who promised during the insurrection that they would lay down their arms once Aristide left.
But the rebels have other plans. "We think we would need an army of 15,000, to complement a national police force of 20-25,000," says Faustin Miradieux, a rebel leader from the city of Gonaives. "But it would be a professional army," he adds, "not like what we had before."
Sitting down to a meal of Creole fish filet in a hotel restaurant, Mr. Chamblain - a convicted leader of death squads in the early 1990's - says it is not for the US to decide whether Haiti will have an army. "There are deep divisions in the country, among the people as well, and those divisions cannot be allowed to be settled by violence,' he says as he eats. "It's not even for us to decide if there should be an army to guarantee order. That's for the people to decide."