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a213: Haiti : Political uncertainty - Latin America Press (fwd)
Latin America Press:
Monday, December 31, 2001
Haiti : Political uncertainty
Coup attempt underscores continuing tensions.
Political tensions deepened and violence flared after an apparent coup attempt on the night of Dec. 16. About 30 armed men attacked the national prison, then took over the nearby National Palace, where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has his offices.
After heavy exchanges of gunfire with police who surrounded the building, most of the attackers, believed to be former soldiers, escaped. Police sources said that seven people, including one attacker and two police officers, died of bullet wounds. The other victims were believed to be uninvolved civilians.
Aristide, who was not at the palace at the time, called on Haitians to mobilize peacefully to prevent a coup, and crowds took to the streets to build barricades in the capital and other towns. Coming less than five months after attacks on police stations, also by suspected former soldiers (LP, Aug. 6, 2001), the incident provoked an angry response from some government supporters who set fire to the offices of opposition parties and the homes of several opposition leaders.
Perversely, the failed coup may bring temporary relief to a government beset by corruption scandals and a damaging political dispute.
The Democratic Convergence, a coalition of small opposition parties, has refused to recognize the Lavalas Family’s May 2000 election victory (LP, June 12, 2000), and has sought to portray Aristide, who returned to the presidency in February, as a dictator. Despite mediation efforts by the Organization of American States, the Convergence has continued to spurn Aristide’s offer to hold new elections, and appears determined to prolong the impasse in the hope that the government will eventually fall.
Key to this strategy is a decision by international lending institutions to suspend about US$500 million of development aid until the two sides reach an agreement. This includes $146 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank aimed at improving health care, schools, water systems and roads.
But ordinary Haitians have little enthusiasm for the Convergence leaders, a collection of failed politicians. Earlier this year, the coalition’s reputation suffered further when one of its leaders called for the return of the Haitian army, which Aristide abolished to popular acclaim in early 1995.
Expectations that Aristide’s return to the presidency would bring tangible benefits for most Haitians have been dashed, and many former Lavalas Family supporters have turned against the government.
One, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Papay Peasant Movement, recently told Radio Métropole, "The people cannot cope with the high cost of living. Parents cannot afford to send their children to school, and a climate of insecurity prevails. It’s time for a general mobilization to get the country out of this situation."
Although Jean-Baptiste has allied his movement with the Convergence, other progressive groups are calling for a revival of the country’s once-influential grassroots political movement as an alternative to both Lavalas and the Convergence.
Self-help groups, inspired by liberation theology and Haiti’s tradition of collective organizing, flourished when the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship fell in 1986. But their efforts to create a democratic system based on grassroots organizations were cut short by three years of military rule (1991-94).
Stephen Phelps, who has helped peasants and young people set up grassroots organizations since the mid-1980s, said that over the past several years Haiti has been transformed "into a Mafia-style state where the people have been pushed back from a position in which they can exercise any power."
Phelps places much of the blame on the post-military governments of Aristide (1990-91/1994-96) and his successor, René Préval (1996-2001).
The grassroots movement lost some of its best leaders, Phelps said, when "progressive activists were co-opted" by Aristide. He added that people become confused when they see elected governments using violence as a tool of terror in poor neighborhoods, the way past dictators did.
Lody Auguste, another long-time activist, who now runs the Carrefour Feuilles Women’s Health Clinic in one of the capital’s largest slums, shares that view. While recognizing that the 1991-94 repression accounts for much of the movement’s demobilization, Auguste also attributes many of the problems to the Lavalas leadership.
"People believed in certain charismatic leaders who said that they wanted change, but then people saw that they didn’t do any better than the Duvaliers. They were reproducing the same system," Auguste said. "Today, these people, who once were willing to participate in policies for the construction of the country, will only demonstrate if offered money or promises of jobs."
Still, recent months have seen numerous moves to revive the grassroots movement. The national peasant organization Tèt Kole has formed a coalition with other non-aligned organizations. It has also joined forces with workers’ organizations connected to the progressive wing of the Catholic Church and the newer workers’ movement, Batay Ouvriye, to mobilize for new labor legislation.
Batay Ouvriye has been particularly active in northern Haiti, helping new unions force negotiations for improved pay and working conditions. A long dispute with the French Marnier-Lapostolle Co., which manufactures Grand Marnier liqueur, made some progress last year when the orange-growers’ union won wage increases. Earlier this year, new unions in the north won legal recognition for their First of May federation.
In other signs of renewed collaborative efforts at the grassroots, the National Union Collective, including unions of nurses, teachers, and journalists, has formed, and in late November, four women’s organizations came together to boycott a government-sponsored conference on domestic violence.
In late October, a large gathering of activists, including representatives of the Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development, a coalition of human rights organizations, and the Haitian Women’s Solidarity group, met to issue a call for a national grassroots mobilization to provide an alternative to the traditional political parties.