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HAITI: Current Upheaval

Author: Esther Pan
March 2, 2004

What's next for Haiti?

After weeks of violent upheaval to protest his rule--and mounting international pressure for him to step down--President Jean-Bertrand Aristide abruptly resigned and left Haiti before dawn February 29, fleeing on a U.S. aircraft and taking temporary refuge in the Central African Republic. Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre was sworn in as interim president, while U.S., French, and Canadian troops arrived in Haiti as part of a U.N.-approved mission to establish order amid a continued wave of looting, rioting, and violence.

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What were the circumstances of Aristide's departure?

There are conflicting reports. The U.S. government says Aristide approached U.S. ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley, voluntarily resigned, and accepted a U.S. offer of safe transit to exile. Aristide, after landing in the Central African Republic, spoke by phone with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other supporters and claimed he had been "kidnapped" and forced out of power, according to news reports. At a press conference March 1, Secretary of State Colin Powell called these claims "absolutely baseless, absurd."

What is the U.N. role?

Following Aristide's departure, the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session February 29 and unanimously approved Resolution 1529, authorizing the immediate dispatch of a multinational force to Haiti and the creation of a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace it in three months. The resolution recognizes Alexandre as the acting president of Haiti and calls on all parties in the conflict to respect the constitutional succession.

How many troops are in Haiti now?

There are now some 450 U.S. Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy, the airport, and other militarily significant sites. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a briefing March 1 that up to 2,000 marines could be deployed. The New York Times reported March 2 that France has sent 300 troops to Haiti, with 100 police officers on the way, to guard French citizens and its embassy. Experts say officials are also discussing force contributions from the Caribbean states, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

What caused Aristide's downfall?

Haiti has had a volatile history since a slave revolt established its independence from France in 1804. The country has seen more than 30 coups and only one democratic transition of power in that time. Years of political and economic disorder led the U.S. military to intervene in 1915, beginning a 19-year occupation. In 1934, Haiti regained sovereign rule, then suffered through years of instability and oppression under the 29-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family, which ended in 1986. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who championed the cause of the poor, won the country's first democratic presidential election in 1990. A military coup six months later deposed him, and he spent three years in exile in the United States until U.S. military action restored him to power. In recent years, experts say, Aristide had grown increasingly autocratic. A coalition of armed groups formed to oust him, and more than 100 people have died in the escalating violence, according to news reports. Opposition politicians, who said they did not condone the rebellion, also called for Aristide to step down.

Why did the violence spill over now?

Experts say the current crisis began with Aristide's re-election in 2000, which was boycotted by all the major opposition parties to protest suspect parliamentary elections earlier that year. An Organization of American States Electoral Observer Mission said "a number of irregularities did compromise the credibility of these elections." Voter turnout for the subsequent presidential election, in which Aristide ran unopposed, was only 5 percent. Those disputed elections have created a political stalemate: the terms of most legislators expired in January, and Parliament has stopped functioning. A series of violent clashes--gunmen attacked the National Palace in Port-au-Prince in 2001, and police broke up opposition and civil society rallies in 2002 and 2003--led to a government crackdown on opposition members and increased tension. The current uprising broke out February 5 in the northern opposition stronghold of Gonaives following months of anti-Aristide protests.

Who are the main political players in Haiti?

The political opposition--a coalition of businessmen, communists, socialists, artists, and former Aristide supporters--is organized as the Democratic Platform of Civil Society and Political Parties, experts say. This includes the Convergence Democratique, a wide-ranging collection of political and civil society groups, and the Group of 184, which represents Haiti's business community, according to Timemagazine. The leading political figures include:

Boniface Alexandre

He joined the Supreme Court in 1990 and has served as chief justice for 10 years. Alexandre has said he will lead Haiti until a new government is set up; however, Haiti's constitution calls for the interim president to be approved by Parliament, which is not functioning.

Andy Apaid, Jr.

A U.S.-born factory owner and outspoken member of the political opposition.

Evans Paul.

A playwright, journalist, and former mayor of Port-au-Prince. Some analysts say he's Haiti's most credible politician. "He's the only person who can restore anything to this situation," says Robert E. White, a former diplomat and president of the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Who are the rebel leaders?

A collection of insurgents, prisoners, armed gang members, and ex-soldiers of the Haitian Army returned from exile, experts say. The leaders include:

Louis-Jodel Chamblain.

A former army sergeant and death-squadleader. He was convicted in absentia for crimes includingthe murder of a prominent businessman in 1993 and a 1994 massacreof at least 15 people. He was also implicated in the 1993assassination of Justice Minister Guy Malary. Chamblain fledto the Dominican Republic in 1994 when U.S. troops intervened,and returned to Haiti to lead the rebellion.

Butteur Metayer.

Head of the Revolutionary Anti-Aristide Front, he started the uprising when his forces drove police from Gonaives. Metayer's group, the "Cannibal Army," was pro-Aristide under the leadership of Metayer's brother, Amiot Metayer, before Amiot was assassinated in September 2003. Metayer's followers blamed Aristide for the murder and turned against him.

Guy Phillipe.

Aristide's former police chief in northern Haiti. He fled to the Dominican Republic in 2000 after being accused of plotting a coup and returned to join the current rebellion.

What challenges do Haiti's new leaders face?

The first is establishing security. International troops will supplement Haiti's ineffectual national police force, which numbers some 3,000 to 5,000. The rebels are continuing their clashes with pro-Aristide armed gangs called chimères. "They're basically unemployed youths armed by Aristide to act as a political strike force," says James Morrell, a longtime critic of Aristide and executive director of The Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based think tank. Both sides have committed grisly killings against the other's supporters, experts say.

In addition, developing a governing coalition in Haiti will be very difficult, experts say. "The real dynamic is between the civilian nonviolent groups and the thug rebels," says JuliaSweig, senior fellow and deputy director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The civilians in the Haitian opposition are going to have to do everything they can to keep a civilian character to the transition government."

What is the future for Aristide?

It's unclear, experts say. Currently in the Central African Republic, he is reportedly seeking permanent asylum in South Africa. South African deputy minister of foreign affairs Aziz Pahad told reporters March 2 that "in principle, we have no problem" with granting asylum to Aristide. But upcoming parliamentary elections could make such a decision a political liability for South African President Thabo Mbeki, an Aristide supporter. Opposition political parties have accused Mbeki of being too friendly with autocrats, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

What is the economic situation in Haiti?

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 150th out of 175 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Some 70 percent of Haitians are unemployed, and most of the country's 8 million residents live on less than $1 per day. "Many people have suffered under the catastrophic nature of the economy," says Robert Fatton, Jr., chair of the politics department at the University of Virginia and an expert on Haiti.

Is there a Haitian army?

No. After returning to power in 1994, Aristide disbanded the army. But some of the rebel leaders have vowed to re-instate the organization, known for its brutality. Rebel leaders followed by cheering crowds occupied the former headquarters of the Haitian Army on March 1, The New York Times reported. "I have a great fear that out of this mess of contradictory policies the army will be re-established," says White.

What is the United States's main concern about Haiti?

Experts say officials are particularly concerned that the chaos in Haiti will send refugees fleeing on boats to the United States. During the unrest in 1991 and 1992, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted some 41,000 Haitians at sea, more than the previous 10 years combined. On February 25, President George W. Bush warned Haitians that refugees would be turned away from American shores, saying, "We ... strongly encourage the Haitian people to stay home as we work to reach a peaceful solution to this problem." The Coast Guard has returned hundreds of Haitians to their country since the current crisis began, experts say.