6 March 2004  
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Nightmare in the Caribbean
In the 200 years since independence, Haiti has endured a vicious cycle of coups: Ian Thomson examines the background to the latest crisis Shortly after Christmas I went to Haiti for the first time in 13 years. The collapse of the Aristide regime was still two months away, but the Caribbean republic was already descending into chaos. At the airport of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the familiar smells of drainage and burning rubbish hit me forcefully and it was as though I had never been away. Haiti’s history — a vicious cycle of coups d’états — had not changed either. Last Sunday the airport was the scene of a hurried departure as Haiti’s President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, flew out of the country into exile. In an armed uprising backed by the US, he had been deposed by former death-squad commanders and ex-military.

As well as being constitutionally illegal, Aristide’s fall has soured Haiti’s long-awaited bicentennial celebrations. On 1 January 1804 the African slaves on Haiti’s sugar plantations overthrew their French masters and proclaimed the world’s first black republic. Recently the airport was renamed ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ after the slave leader and national hero, and preparations had been under way for bicentennial wreath-laying ceremonies. The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, was in Port-au-Prince the day I arrived and had donated R10 million ($1.4 million) to help with the festivities. Great Britain, by contrast, had shown scant interest in the bicentenaire and sent no diplomatic representative. I was the only British journalist there.

I was met at the airport by my friend Alix Legros, who turned up with an armed guard. ‘For our protection,’ he explained. Alix had been chief of airport security but in 1999 had been shot at by Aristide’s thugs for refusing to let through a cocaine shipment from Colombia. Alix is an art-dealer now, and on the way to my hotel he showed me a photograph he still carries of Aristide as a Roman Catholic ordinand from the early 1970s. Alix, like thousands of Haitians, had once believed that ‘the Messiah’ could redeem this country and its run-down people. Over the last five months, however, supporters of Aristide have engaged in bloody battles with the ex-police and paramilitary which have claimed more than 130 lives. Banners stretched across the road from the airport nevertheless proclaimed: ‘THE CREDO OF THE HAITIAN PEOPLE IS: JESUS, HAITI, ARISTIDE’.

When I was in Haiti in 1990 Aristide was about to become the country’s first democratically elected president since François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier in 1957. After studying in Israel as part of his Bible studies, the frail, soft-spoken priest returned to Haiti in 1982 to wage war on the ‘corrupt’. He was a Christ-figure for Haiti’s dispossessed and a firebrand in the pulpit. Sadly, Aristide (‘Titid’ to his supporters) became compromised by power and is now reduced to the ex-dictator status of the other emperors, kings and presidents-for-life who have misruled this country for the last two centuries. From the outset he was faced with an impossible task. He earned the disapproval of the Vatican hierarchy by inciting the poor to acts of violence against the wealthy, and, unsurprisingly, the military did not care for him either. In 1991, less than a year into office, Aristide was deposed and bundled into a waiting car while bullets strafed the National Palace.

Haiti’s president-priest spent three years in exile, first in Caracas and then in Washington, DC. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, buoyed up by his new ‘ethical’ foreign policy, schemed ways to restore Aristide to power and topple the regime that had overthrown him. In September 1994, America invaded Haiti for the second time since the first world war: 20,000 Special Forces moved in by sea and air. More than 3,000 Haitians had been killed by the military since the coup, and most of the country’s eight million people hated the junta. The regime’s 7,000 troops, instead of retaliating, lay about in their string vests playing cards. Any civilians remotely associated with the junta, however, were slaughtered.

Eventually, in October 1994, Aristide was allowed to re-enter Haiti. Some say he changed during his three-year exile, when he was dependent on American ‘hospitality’ and surrounded by White House aides. By the time he returned to Haiti, Aristide’s term had almost expired; in the ensuing elections, closely watched by the world, his associate Réné Preval became President. But Aristide now had a taste for government, and in February 2001 he was returned once more to the National Palace as apparent champion of the poor. Almost at once the demagogue began to reveal himself. Aristide failed to speak out strongly against mob violence perpetrated by his Lavalas (‘Cleansing Flood’) party, and was increasingly mired in corruption. He is now implicated in the grossest human-rights abuses, murder and disappearances. He created his own private militia known in Haitian Creole as Chimè, or Chimeras, similar in kind to the Tontons Macoute under Papa Doc. These ‘personal enforcers’ of Aristide were routinely involved in graft.

Indeed, cocaine smuggling from Colombia had reportedly tripled in Haiti since the former priest returned in 1994. Alix drove me downtown and in the capital’s main square, the Champs de Mars, he pointed out a group of Chimè. Mandrill-faced young men, they wore Ralph Lauren T-shirts and braided hair, their knives and handguns visibly tucked into waistbands. Aristide had recruited them, some as young as 15, from the shanty towns to suppress political dissent. Some of them had worked as luggage handlers at the airport, where they guaranteed uninterrupted smuggling. Cocaine usage had made these thugs unpredictable. On 5 December last year they raided the State University in Port-au-Prince and, using an iron bar, broke the rector’s legs.

The United States first grew wary of Aristide’s commitment to democracy in 1995 after he disbanded the Haitian army. Aristide hoped he had removed the threat of another coup d’état in this way. However, the disaffected former troops began to foment uprisings and eventually toppled Aristide from power earlier this week. The current crisis, though, dates from Haiti’s parliamentary elections of 2000, which the opposition claim were gerrymandered in President Aristide’s favour. Concerned by allegations of electoral fraud, most foreign donors withdrew aid and the US imposed a blockade. Needless to say, the blockade hit Haiti’s urban poor hardest; most Haitians subsist on less than $2 a day, and those who live amid the filth of Port-au-Prince have a life expectancy of 53 years.

At a press conference held in the National Palace last New Year’s Eve, Aristide arrived flanked by two minders and his wife Mildred, an American-born Haitian attorney. Smiling nervously, the 50-year-old President took his place at the head of a long conference table. ‘I am ready for you,’ he addressed the journalists huddled together at the far end of the reception room. Aristide is a tiny, sparrow-boned man, seemingly mild in his gold wire-framed glasses. Yet he clearly had a messianic sense of his place in Haitian history. ‘Haiti is the mother of liberty,’ he announced, ‘and I am mother to the Haitian people.’ This is the familiar rhetoric of Duvalierism.

The next morning — 1 January — a taxi took me back to the National Palace for the bicentennial jamboree. Aristide had spent $15 million on the 1804–2004 festivities, much of it presumably on security. Police patrolled the presidential lawn with sub-machine guns as Mr and Mrs Aristide stood with robed African potentates and other dignitaries at the top of the palace steps. At a signal, bare-chested young men who were painted gold and wearing cutoff trousers to symbolise slavery marched in solemn procession towards their President. They were followed by drum majorettes and flag displays.

An estimated 10,000 Aristide militants stood clamouring for a better view outside the palace, but under the pressure a metal fence suddenly collapsed, allowing the crowd to surge across the lawn towards their idol. Hand-picked from the slums, they brandished chains in memory of slavery. ‘Titid or death!’ they shouted. Riot police prevented them from rushing on to the presidential dais but two foreign journalists were hurt in the stampede. (Fortunately I had managed to climb a tree.) Aristide continued to address the excited crowd as he vowed to serve out his five-year term until 2006. ‘Titid five years! Titid five years!’ the faithful roared, and Aristide harangued them in turn: ‘Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Happy New Year! How many times did I say it?’ Up went the cheer: ‘Three times!’ It was hard to believe this was the same man I had seen at yesterday’s press conference; Aristide’s rhetoric, by turns inflammatory and poetic, worked like a tinderbox on the crowds.

At the same time, on the far side of Port-au-Prince, riots had left six dead. The road out to the airport was black from piles of burning tyres, and strewn with rocks and trailing telephone wires. Police vehicles had been turned over and set ablaze, their windscreens smashed or daubed in paint: ‘A bas caca Aristide!’ Now, two months on, Aristide is overthrown and his angry supporters settle scores with machetes as the White House sends in marines to occupy Haiti once more. The same nation that helped reinstate Aristide a decade ago, the United States, had a plane waiting last Sunday to take him back into exile. Amid the looting and lawlessness, political power in Haiti continues to come from the barrel of a gun.

Ian Thomson’s Bonjour Blanc: a Journey Through Haiti is re-issued in May with a new preface by J.G. Ballard.

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