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a64: Haitian crowds can be ugly backdrop to politics (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Michael Deibert
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Dec 19 (Reuters) - As word of an attack by
gunmen on the National Palace spread through the poor quarters of
Port-au-Prince, crowds of people spilled onto the streets in a rowdy show
of support for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government that turned
into a rampage.
Violent crowds can be an ugly backdrop to Haitian politics. Aristide
critics and human rights activists say they are often on the side of the
ruling Lavalas Family party and authorities sometimes seem unwilling or
unable to rein them in.
Often derisively referred to as chimeres, after a mythological
fire-breathing beast, the people who make up such menacing crowds are
young, usually jobless men.
Such crowds appeared rapidly after about 30 gunmen stormed the
National Palace on Monday morning in an assault which was contained by
police in hours.
"Hand them (the gunmen) over to us! We know what to do with them!"
screamed one young man outside the palace on Monday, held back by police
attempting to control the situation.
"We're going to go house by house and drive the Dominicans out of this
country!" shouted another, carrying a plastic bottle filled with diesel
fuel. He was referring to a rumor in the street, which has not been
substantiated, that soldiers from Haiti's neighbor were among the
Spotting a van from private Radio Metropole -- a private station often
deemed by critics too critical of Aristide -- a crowd surrounded the
journalists inside until they were forced to flee, seen off with a volley
of rocks and insults.
Crowds later burned down several buildings and homes belonging to
political opposition parties and their members. Two opposition politicians
were reported to have been killed in the town of Gonaives, rights group
Amnesty International said.
There was no evidence of political opposition involvement in the
attack on the palace.
The crowd blocked intersections with burning tires and drove patrols
around the palace waving rifles and machetes.
Four radio stations were forced to close as bands of Lavalas partisans
roamed the streets. Death threats were phoned in to private Radio Vision
2000, Radio Caraibes and Radio Metropole, sources at the stations reported.
In violence the following day, private radio reported that a crowd
burned the offices of Radio Caraibes in the tense southern city of Petit
The city was the site of repeated unrest last week after the murder
two weeks ago of Radio Echo 2000 journalist Brignol Lindor by
pro-government attackers sparked running battles between supporters of the
main opposition alliance Democratic Convergence supporters and state
A van from the government-run National Haitian Television station was
met with taunts and threats at Lindor's funeral.
Hours after the apparent coup attempt and the violence that followed,
Aristide called in a speech to the nation late on Monday for Haitians to
"mobilize peacefully, respect the rights of political parties, respect the
rights of journalists, respect the rights of all people without
But Amnesty International said that despite this, the attack was
followed by "numerous acts of targeted violence at the hands of armed
Amnesty said that "according to various sources, police either were
not present or did not intervene during these activities," and urged the
government to end reprisal attacks.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch also condemned the
violence, saying "government supporters committed serious acts of violence
with apparent impunity." Authorities "cannot allow mob violence to go
unchallenged," it said.
The chimere phenomenon is one with plenty of history in Haiti. The
poorest country in the Americas has struggled for the last decade to shake
off the legacy of bloody dictatorships and to build democratic
institutions. Haitian politicians know it can be easy to buy support among
the country's poor.
Aristide's own St. Jean Bosco church was sacked and a dozen
congregants were killed more than a decade ago when the president was a
Roman Catholic priest with a popular following that would lead to his
election for a first term in 1990.
These days, the crowds are a backdrop to a long-running dispute
between Lavalas and the opposition over parliamentary elections in May
Edzer Pierre, a former grassroots activist, said both sides in the
conflict were involved in the chimere problem. "There's a huge population
of people who will do anything for money. (They're) not a political force,
they're a political tool."
Critics tend to brand all government supporters as chimeres, which
upsets some from the grassroots movements that form Aristide's power base.
"You can take anybody on the street who doesn't have anything and pay
them to say they're Lavalassian, but it doesn't mean that they represent
us," said Yves Marie, a director of a social group in a Port-au-Prince