No more lip service

International | HAITI: Haitians want democracy, but not the Jean-Bertrand Aristide brand

Issue: "Remaking the family," March 6, 2004

Charles Amicy did not stick around to see how long Jean-Bertrand Aristide would hold onto power. With the president's paramilitary units setting up roadblocks and concrete pipe barriers to keep rebels out of the capital, the Haitian pastor, his wife, and four children made a precarious escape from Port-au-Prince Feb. 25 to fly to the United States, where they hope to find temporary sanctuary from sudden civil war.

Haiti has seen anti-government uprisings before. But this one is very different, according to Mr. Amicy. "More and more, Haitian people realize that Mr. Aristide is not willing to do anything for this country. Even people who were with him have turned against him because of the way Aristide is running the country. We need someone who will love Haiti and not say it only on his lips."

Rebels, only about 200 strong, took over Haiti's second largest town, Cap Haitien, along with most towns in the northwest by the end of February. Rebel leader Guy Phillipe, a former police chief, said he'd need only a couple of weeks to complete the coup. As many as 1,000 or more police officers have defected, making it easier for rebels to advance. At the same time, Mr. Aristide's political opponents are supporting the rebels. Altogether, the overwhelming mood in the streets, according to Mr. Amicy and other Haitians, is that Mr. Aristide must go. "People did once love him but now they don't want him," said Mr. Amicy.

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Overwhelming disgust with Mr. Aristide's abuse of power is what prompted Haiti's rapid descent to anarchy. Popular support started eroding soon after the United States sent peacekeepers to put the former Catholic priest back in power in 1994 after a coup similar to the one in progress. Since then he has repeatedly rigged elections to keep his party in control of parliament, most recently in 2000 and 2001, when voter turnout bottomed out at 10 percent.

More recently, street-level anger climbed after Aristide militants turned violent during anti-Aristide student demonstrations that began in December. Aristide gunmen fired randomly into the crowds, killing at least a dozen students and wounding more. At one point Aristide partisans attacked the University of Haiti's president, Pierre-Marie Pacquiot, beating him with iron bars and severing tendons in both knees.

Violence has not spared Haiti's struggling evangelical community, including five churches and four Christian schools Mr. Amicy has planted in the last six years. After rebels took over the town of St. Marc, two of his churches canceled services there due to the violence. Several church members watched their homes burn at the hands of Aristide militias, and most now are hiding inside their homes, particularly at night. On Feb. 17 militants stole Mr. Amicy's car and kidnapped his driver. The driver turned up beaten the next day, but the car never resurfaced. The attackers told the driver, "President Aristide needs it."

"Our situation is very bad," Mr. Amicy said from his home in the farming community of Messailler, 30 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

The United States has stepped in to prop up Mr. Aristide and has watched from the sidelines as his regime became increasingly corrupt, targeting opposition figures with assassination, abolishing the army while setting up bands of pro-Aristide paramilitary units, and intimidating voters.

Historic U.S. intervention is not likely to succeed, particularly a repeat of the 1994 operation, when President Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to halt street violence and restore Mr. Aristide's power. Diplomacy's day may also be past. On. Feb. 23 Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned 20 opposition leaders, encouraging them to accept an international plan calling for Mr. Aristide to share power with rivals. But the opposition coalition said no, turning down the plan well before a deadline.

Their intransigence is a dilemma for the Bush administration, which may have to decide between supporting an elected leader and longtime U.S. ally or participating in his ouster. Regime change in the Western Hemisphere is not in the president's playbook.

Critics, particularly Democrats, wanted the president to back Mr. Aristide.

For now he appears to have adopted a good cop/bad cop formula, with Mr. Powell pushing for a conciliatory approach, while others-particularly Undersecretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega-press for change. Mr. Noriega, a former aide to former Sen. Jesse Helms, assisted in legislating a trade embargo against Haiti after 2000 and 2001 elections showed Mr. Aristide to be more thug than statesman.


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