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a740: Washington Post: In Haiti, a Stalled Transition to Democracy
>From Today's Edition:
In Haiti, a Stalled Transition to Democracy
February 12, 2002; Page A21
Publication: Washington Post
Author: Scott Wilson
PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti – Being a government critic in this country has never been the path to a long life. And Brignol Lindor must have known the risk he was taking by skewering the dominant political party each Wednesday on his call-in radio show.
If Lindor did not fully appreciate the dangers, Mayor Dume Bony spelled them out with chilling clarity during a Nov. 30 news conference in this seaside city of rusting tin roofs and filigreed verandas. Bony, a member of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas Family party, told his audience – including those listening on Lindor's own Radio Echo 2000 – that "we must . . . apply zero tolerance to all members of the [opposition]. We need to mobilize a vigilance brigade against this terrorism."
Bony listed five enemies of the party. Lindor, whom the mayor nicknamed "Iron Pants" for his unyielding opposition, was first among them. On Dec. 3, after leaving his other job as a customs inspector at the dock, Lindor drove to the L'Acul neighborhood on an errand. Awaiting him were members of a "popular organization" linked with Lavalas, alerted to his route by the head of the customs house.
The mob pulled him from the car, beat him and slashed him to death with machetes used in the nearby sugar cane fields. The killing touched off three weeks of bloody rioting – attacks and reprisals from both political camps – that shook this city of 180,000 inhabitants 35 miles southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and provided vivid proof yet again that Haiti's 16-year-old transition from dictatorship to democracy has not progressed very far.
A year after Aristide took office for a second time with a promise to bring impoverished Haitians "peace in the stomach, peace in the head," there is significantly less of both in this tiny Caribbean nation. An unresolved dispute over how to open Haiti's democracy to opposition parties continues to hold up international aid to a country with virtually no resources of its own. The resulting unrest has greatly undermined Aristide's ability to maintain order in the hemisphere's poorest nation.
Aristide, the inscrutable former priest who became Haiti's first elected leader in 1991 before his overthrow less than a year later, was the target of two coup attempts last year. U.S. officials have soured Aristide and hold him responsible for many of Haiti's problems. Most of the political opposition does not want to deal with him, calling him sneaky and power-hungry.
This is not the way the Clinton administration planned it when 20,000 U.S. soldiers were dispatched to restore Aristide's populist presidency in 1994. Since then, Washington has poured $3 billion into Haiti to fortify its nascent democracy while watching with trepidation as Lavalas, which means "great flood" in Creole, has taken control of the country from the neighborhood to the national level.
Although three decades of Duvalier family dictatorship are long gone – Jean-Claude Duvalier fled in 1986 – Haiti's raw democracy is still viewed by many here as a winner-take-all proposition designed to benefit the victorious party's most ardent supporters. As a result, Aristide and a largely unpopular coalition of opposition parties known as the Democratic Convergence have been unable to agree on a more equitable political system and, as a result, have helped replant the signposts pointing Haiti's way toward chaos.
Asked at a news conference at the National Palace last week what his biggest achievement has been over the past year, Aristide said: "When you see the economic resources we have had to work with, just preserving what peace we have has been a major accomplishment."
The immediate political dispute stems from legislative elections held in May 2000. Opposition leaders, backed by the United States and other foreign governments, contend the Lavalas-controlled Provisional Electoral Council unfairly tabulated results from 10 Senate districts to make sure Lavalas candidates avoided runoff ballots.
Responding to the complaints, Aristide pressured those senators to resign in July to make way for new elections he has proposed for later this year. He has also invited opposition members to join his government, agreed to a new way of selecting an independent electoral oversight board and offered to push forward all legislative elections by two years.
But the United States has continued to block more than $500 million in international loans – a sum equal to roughly 5 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product. It says the government must take more steps to protect opposition members, citing the attack on Lindor and another on opposition headquarters following the most recent coup attempt, on Dec. 17. Responding to a request by the Caribbean Community to start releasing the money, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week that "we do not believe enough has been done yet to move the political process forward."
While acknowledging that Aristide has taken steps toward an agreement, a U.S. official here said, "the goal posts have moved" in what will be required of the government to ensure the safety of opposition members before new elections.
"We have not seen any proposal from the government that addresses all of these issues adequately that has been refused by the Convergence," the U.S. official said. "If that were to happen, we would do something about it."
By holding up the money, Lavalas officials argue, the United States is fostering instability that undermines its own interest in preventing Haiti from becoming a major source of illegal migration and a gateway for drugs passing north from Colombia. As a result, Aristide's allies say, the real U.S. goal is to replace Aristide with someone more ideologically acceptable to the Bush administration.
U.S. Ambassador Brian Dean Curran dismissed that idea as "rubbish." But on the street it has stirred resentment against the United States, once revered here for restoring the diminutive Aristide to power.
"The U.S. is committing a crime against Haiti," said Rene Civil, a Lavalas member who rallied his Youth for People's Power organization to a recent march in front of the U.S. Embassy that included protesters wearing National Palace identification cards. "The international community is only listening to the malicious opposition, and they are hoping for another coup."
As the political haggling continues, conditions in Haiti remain miserable and show signs of deteriorating. Less than half the 8 million people have access to potable water. After twilight in the countryside, homes and business are lit by candle except for the large Elf and Texaco gas stations, which have their own generators. Students gather by the gas pumps under the neon lights to finish homework.
In the capital, families pick lettuce from street-side garbage piles as goats, pigs and dogs root around nearby. In a new phenomenon, kidnapping networks have begun to seize wealthy Haitians for ransom. Recent arrests have revealed that the groups frequently work with the National Police, whose members make less than $200 a month.
Many of the poor still believe in Aristide, whose liberation theology and brave defiance of the Duvalier dictatorship won him legions of followers. But corruption has cast a shadow over his party. Last month, riots broke out at a warehouse on the Port-au-Prince docks on rumors that Lavalas senators were stealing rice stored there as part of a government aid program. The president has removed a handful of party mayors accused of theft.
"There is only one person who can help us, and that is the president," said Manita Jean-Paul, 26, who with two friends sells warm Coke, dried fish and ketchup from a tin-roof shack in the dusty Delmas neighborhood. "It's not so much that he is failing, but the people around him are."
Authorities say the Dec. 17 attack on the National Palace was connected to an assault in July on a police academy in the capital during which five officers were killed and a cache of small arms was stolen. Those guns, authorities say, were used in the December raid carried out by a roughly 30-member commando team that included former members of the Haitian military.
As the attack unfolded, security officials with Aristide, who was at home in Tabarre, a suburb, were contacted by a commando taking part in the coup attempt. The commando said the attack was being carried out by a group of former military officers and active members of the National Police, according to a security agent who heard the conversation. The commando identified the head of the group, according to security officials, as Guy Philippe, a former Cap-Haitien police chief.
Philippe, also a former member of the military, has denied involvement from the Dominican Republic, where he has been detained. He fled Haiti in November 2000 after U.S. officials passed the government intelligence that Philippe and Jean-Jacques Nau, another member of the military and police chief, were plotting a coup before Aristide's election later that month.
Within hours of the attack, a mob of Lavalas supporters arrived at Convergence's downtown headquarters and at the homes of at least three opposition members in the capital. They burned the buildings down. A U.S. official described the reprisal as "a guided response" by the party to the palace attack.
"Aristide knew exactly what was going on," said Claude Roumain, a Convergence leader. "He used the coup [attempt] to make a new political situation, and to reinforce his position."
Government security officials acknowledge that much of the network that financed, planned and carried out the attack is still in place. The two .50-caliber machine guns used in the attacks are now being used to protect the palace, and Aristide travels with a helicopter escort. His security detail of former U.S. Special Forces members, employees of the California-based Steele Foundation, has increased from 10 to 16 agents.
"His assassination is the worst-case scenario that will evoke what happened in Rwanda," said Leslie Voltaire, the minister of Haitians living abroad.
Since Lindor's death, Aristide has fired Bony, the police chief and the two other "mayors" that make up the Petit-Goave town council.
But the radio station has yet to restart Lindor's call-in show. Many opposition members have left town or gone into hiding, as have some members of the "popular organization" that killed him. Unrest, however, remains: On Saturday, an attack on the police station by a mob apparently linked to the opposition killed one officer and prompted a mass arrest of Convergence members.