Former Haitian allies become enemies
Weeks of protest have followed the killing of a government opponent.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Maxim Rony is no stranger to democratic struggle. As a student, he took part in the movement that toppled Haiti's notorious Duvalier regime and helped elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide president in 1990. During a 1991 coup, when Mr. Aristide was ousted for three years, he was one of hundreds working for the president's return.
Now he's switched sides.
Today, Mr. Rony spends much of his time struggling against Aristide's government, which he says relies on volatile armed gangs, repression, and propaganda campaigns to maintain power. Exactly nine years and some three billion US tax dollars after the Clinton Administration restored Aristide to power, none of the democracy that was promised has come about. And once again, protesters have taken to Haiti's streets.
"Democracy was not restored on Oct. 15, ," says Rony, coordinator of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations. "Not only that, today we are witnessing a crisis in values and ethics. We need to keep fighting for real democracy."
This week, thousands of demonstrators marched in the city of St. Marc, homemade anti-Aristide posters held high as they passed shuttered storefronts. Last week, for two days in a row at noon sharp, women in the northern city of Cap-Haitien put aside their laundry to join in a classic "beat steel" protest, clanging their pots and pans, the din rising above the crumbling colonial-era wooden row houses. Six people have been killed and dozens injured in the protests.
"Tell the Americans to take Aristide back! We don't want him any more!" one woman shouted before ducking out of sight.
To the south, the dusty port city of Gonaives was shut down once again on Oct. 6 as thousands accompanied the flag-draped coffin of local strongman Amiot Métayer, which seemed to float on a sea of shouting, sweating heads in the Caribbean sun.
In the city where, 200 years ago, slaves declared victory over the French after a bloody 13-year revolution, former Aristide supporters have been in revolt since Mr. Métayer's body was found bullet-ridden in a ditch on Sept. 22.
Métayer's pro-government "Cannibal Army" gang, some of whose members are armed, used to harass Aristide-opposition marches. Now, convinced that the strongman was eliminated because he had become a nuisance, the "Army" has turned on Aristide and has kept Haiti's fourth-largest city shut for more than three weeks with violent protests and burning barricades.
There are international protests as well. Last week, Amnesty International released yet another report condemning the government for its tolerance of police brutality, torture, and impunity, and Transparency International, the Berlin-based group that tracks government corruption, just ranked Haiti as among the planet's worst offenders.
Haiti's spot on the United Nations Human Development Index slipped again this year, to 150th among 175 nations; 40 percent of children don't go to school, life expectancy is dropping, and poverty on the rise.
"We don't have the means to deliver the fruits of democracy because of the economic sanctions," says the Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, a member of Aristide's first government and once head of Miami's Haitian Refugee Center. "There is a group of people in the US that is continually plotting against the Haitian people."
Mr. Jean-Juste, Aristide, and other officials tend to pin all of Haiti's problems on foreigners. Many foreign countries and institutions like the World Bank cut off aid after the allegedly flawed parliamentary and presidential elections three years ago.
But since then, their demands that Aristide make democratic reforms have mostly gone unheeded. Rights abuses have gone unpunished, journalists have been killed or exiled, and gangs have not been disarmed. Beyond that, the political squabble between Aristide's Lavalas Party and the opposition - which is refusing to participate in overdue local and parliamentary elections until security and rights issues are addressed - has hit an impasse. The Constitution calls for legislative elections this year and presidential elections next year.
The Aristide government counters that the opposition is intransigent. But the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the thousands of Haitian protesters seem to agree that the president could take more resolute steps toward delivering the "justice, transparency, and participation" he promised when first elected in 1990.
Ten years ago, while fighting to restore Aristide to power, Rosemond Jean, then a teenager, took a bullet in the back as he fled Haitian soldiers. He is paralyzed.
Today, like the thousands at the Métayer funeral, he says that Aristide has turned his back him and his slum, with its open sewers glistening green, its water bought by the bucket, and its hungry, half-naked children playing in the dust.
"They have forgotten us," he says from his wheelchair. "We don't exist."
The protesters behind him brandish an American flag and chant angrily,
"Tell the world! Tell Bush! Aristide's in trouble!"
But Mr. Jean's sad eyes don't share his friends' verve. He is tired and frustrated. He takes high school seriously and has missed three weeks already.