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Death of a democracy

Gangs of killers roam freely, rape is systematic and the poor eat mud to survive. In Port-au-Prince, Andrew Buncombe finds a people crushed by the dark hand of US foreign policy

By Andrew Buncomb

02/28/05 "The Independent"
- - The mud biscuits sold in the markets and stacked high by the street vendors in the most desperate parts of Port-au-Prince are made in a part of the city known as Fort-Dimanche. There, close to the site of a former prison, once used by the dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier to lock up political prisoners, women combine clay, water, a little margarine and a scratch of salt. Sometimes they will crumble a foil-wrapped cube of bouillon into the mixture, which they stir, shape into discs the size of a saucer and leave to bake in the Caribbean sun.

In Haiti, these mud cakes are traditionally eaten by expectant mothers who believe they contain nutrients and minerals important to the health of a newborn child. But in recent months they have been sold increasingly to other people, who are too poor to afford anything else. "I have been selling more in the last year. People have less money," says Mafie, the young woman sitting behind a pile of the pale brown mud cakes at Salamoun market.

In their own way, these biscuits, known in Creole simply as terre, tell a bigger story. One year after the enforced departure of Haiti's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country he was forced to flee, having been long undermined by the US authorities, is in a hellish state of affairs. Unstable, deadly, wracked by division and wrecked by a hurricane that tore through the country in September, many of the citizens who voted for the bespectacled former priest with a prayer that he might bring them hope and salvation are forced to fill their bellies with cakes fashioned from mud. Naturally enough, they taste like dirt.

Hunger is just one of Haiti's many problems. Since Aristide was flown out of Port-au-Prince in the early hours of 29 February last year to his destination - the Central African Republic and then South Africa, where he now lives in exile - his supporters and members of his Lavalas political party have faced repression, violence, imprisonment and death.

While UN-mandated elections are scheduled for November, many of the senior members of Lavalas lie in Haiti's fetid and overcrowded jails. To the outrage of human rights groups, few - if any - of the political prisoners locked up by the "interim government" installed by the US, France and Canada have been charged. Some of those jailed and subsequently released have revealed that they had no opportunity to make their case before a judge. Were it not for international pressure put on Gerard Latortue, the interim prime minister, many of them believe they would still be locked up.

At times, Haiti's violence appears to be utterly out of control. Fights between rival gangs with political backing in the slums, or raids by the police who are accused of carrying out summary executions, result in corpses being left in the streets, gnawed at by dogs and pigs until someone comes to remove them.

Late last year, there were so many corpses arriving at the unrefrigerated morgue attached to the city's main hospital, where they lay in piles and were rapidly devoured by maggots, that the authorities refused journalists permission to visit out of concern about the bad image that would be portrayed. Since September, more than 250 people have been killed in political violence in Port-au-Prince.

The Independent has also learned that, in the poorest areas of the city, rape is increasingly common as a tactic of political violence - a phenomenon that last occurred regularly during the early Nineties. Three Pakistani members of the UN peace-keeping force, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, have been accused of raping a woman in the city of Gonaives. An investigation is under way. And, as if that were not enough, a group of rebel soldiers of the supposedly disbanded army are refusing to lay down their guns.

Amid all of this violence and anguish hangs the ghostly presence of the undead. Though it is a year since Aristide left, in the poorer parts of town where his name is repeatedly invoked, it is clear he is never far from people's thoughts.

Emanuel Exantes, an angry young man in a black T-shirt, who is also a trader at the busy Salamoun market, summed up what many people here believe. "It was wrong. It was not the Haitian people who made him go. It was the Americans. They want to kill Haiti. When Aristide was in power, they did not give him any money. Now, this new fucking person, they're giving him money all the time. They give money to [the interim prime minister] because he is their man. Aristide was not theirs." He added: "This whole market is waiting for Aristide. I'm for dialogue but I want to see Aristide come back to the country. He loves the people. Aristide was elected for five years but they never wanted him to finish his term. You could not do that in America."

Aristide never wanted to leave the country. In the early hours of that Sunday morning one year ago, when loosely co-ordinated rebel forces were marching towards the capital, and after leaders of the opposition told Washington they would not agree to a political compromise that did not involve Aristide's departure, the president was given a choice. "Come with or stay," he was told by Luis Moreno, the deputy chief of the US embassy, who arrived with a group of heavily armed marines to take Aristide to the airport. "Live or die".

Even at that point, the Americans could have preserved Aristide's presidency with just a few hundred well-armed US Marines. They had, after all, done it before. Following a 1991 CIA-backed coup that ended his first term of office, Aristide was returned to power in October 1994 by President Bill Clinton, who ordered 20,000 Marines to clear the way for his return.

But in 10 years, a lot had changed. Annoyed at Lavalas's refusal to abide by the economic "reforms" set out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States had started to look into freezing economic aid to Haiti. In 2000, after Aristide's re-election, his opponents in Washington seized on a dispute surrounding the vote for the national assembly to block a total of $500m (£260m) in relief to the avowedly Socialist leader.

At the same time, right-wing elements in Washington were actively funding and courting Aristide's opponents. The International Republican Institute, a body that receives much of its funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, was arranging conferences in the neighbouring Dominican Republic for Aristide's opponents to meet those from Washington who shared similar political views.

Throughout this time, leaders of business-backed opposition coalitions in Haiti such as Group 184, led by the millionaire industrialist Andy Apaid, and the National Convergence, were receiving a clear message that there was little international support for Aristide or his brand of liberation theology.

By this time, Aristide was increasingly resorting to violence. Rather than reaching out to groups such as students, who should have been his natural supporters, he used armed gangs known as les chimères to break up their demonstrations and attack them. Groups such as Amnesty International detailed how, by late 2003, the tactics of Aristide increasingly matched those of the Haitian dictators he had so opposed and campaigned against. During this period, said Amnesty, there was "almost total impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations".

Even at the best of times, Port-au-Prince is a chaotic place. If you stay in the city itself, rather than in one of the plush hotels used by diplomats up on the hillside in the suburb of Petionville, you are awoken at dawn by the crowing of roosters and the noise of a city already on the move - the narrow roads are clogged with battered cars and colourful "tap tap" taxis belching exhaust fumes, the pavements thronged with schoolchildren and street vendors. An an estimated two-thirds of the population have no formal employment, but it seems that everyone is trying to get somewhere.

There is little security. Though the UN force has more than 6,000 soldiers and 1,400 police officers, it has a limited ability to maintain order and an apparently limited desire to intervene. Many Haitians complain that the UN representatives stand by while the police raid properties or attack people indiscriminately. A report by the International Crisis Group said: "Of particular concern are charges of summary executions in populous neighbourhoods - including the murder of street children [by police]." Last weekend, an armed ganged broke into the city's main prison and released more than 500 prisoners, including Yvon Neptune, a former Lavalas prime minister, and Jocelerme Privert, a former interior minister. Both had been locked up for months without charge.

Outside the peeling blue-and-white prison, pervaded by a foul smell, visitors were being kept at a distance by snarling policemen, some in regular uniform, some clad in black, wearing helmets, dark glasses and carrying semi-automatic rifles.

A young woman called Josiane, who owns a drinks shop opposite the prison, had been outside the previous afternoon when a gang of armed men arrived. She pointed to six bullet holes on the wall of her shop. "They just came and started shooting," she said. "I ran into the back room and climbed under the bed. When I came out 10 minutes later, there were people running out of the jail." In the street outside her store, she had seen a dead prison guard, the only victim of the incident. She had covered him with a sheet and tried to wash away the blood. That next morning, the place where he had died was still stained red.

Exactly what had happened and who had been responsible was unclear. In a country where there are few reliable sources of information and where rumours spread at the pace of a galloping horse, it was possible to hear five different versions within 20 minutes. It was Aristide's supporters, said one, it was a drug gang, said another, a third a stage-managed raid by the government to make Aristide's supporters look bad.

It later emerged that Neptune and Privert had been returned to prison the day of the break-out, having apparently given themselves up. At the time of writing, 481 other prisoners remain unaccounted for. Meanwhile, Claude Theodat, the director of the prison, has been fired.

The worst of Haiti's violence is concentrated in its no-go slums, which bear such misguidedly beguiling names as Cite Soleil, Bel Air and La Saline. In these areas, virtually cut off from the outside world, rival gangs terrorise the population. Human rights investigators say that Lavalas-backed gangs commit as much violence as those backed by their opponents. The influential businessman Apaid, who declined several requests for an interview, is said to support an anti-Lavalas gang in the "Boston" area of Cite Soleil, headed by a man called Thomas Robinson who prefers to go by the name of Labanye. A recent report by the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Miami quoted Apaid as saying he directed police "not to arrest [Labanye] but to work with him".

In a white-tiled, second-floor office, three women from the extremely poor Martissant neighbourhood explain how gangs are increasingly using rape against political opponents. The women, Malia Villard, Esamithe Delva and Ruth Jean Pierre, were all attacked in the early Nineties and later formed a group called the Commission of Women Victims for Women. Supported by the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the group offers support and access to doctors. They declined to talk about their own specific experiences.

"At times when there is no security and the country has no control. These people can do what they want," said Villard. "Each time there is instability there is an upsurge [in attacks]. When it is quiet the problem is less because people know they could be arrested."

The women said victims were often attacked because of their family's political affiliations. In many cases, the victims' husbands had been killed and there was no one to protect them. Other reports suggest that, in rural areas, a similar campaign of rape is being carried out by rebel soldiers. The risk of Aids and unwanted pregnancies was ever present, Villard said, and there were no longer any free hospitals. "If you are lucky, you are not dead. If you are lucky, you are not sick."

Aristide is not returning to Haiti, at least not to be its president. Despite what some may wish and what the radio stations may claim, it would take a political miracle for him to make a comeback. Unlike 10 years ago, he cannot constitutionally serve another full term. Furthermore, although some organisations still recognise him as their legitimate leader, there is little international clamouring to reinstate him. More importantly, he no longer has many friends in Washington.

In the political vacuum created by his absence, an intense debate is going on inside Lavalas to determine whether the party should select another leader and start campaigning, or whether it should boycott the November elections. One of those who recommends a boycott is Father Gerard Jean Juste, a close friend of Aristide and a Catholic priest. He recently returned from visiting the exiled former president in South Africa and some observers believe he may be the man Aristide has anointed as his successor.

The Independent found the priest in a high-walled compound on the edge of Port-au-Prince, where twice a week he provides meals for the poor as part of a project funded by a San Diego-based group called the What If Foundation. Tall, likeable, surrounded by happy, screaming children and with a populist rhetoric that he has polished in the pulpit, he was recently held in prison for 48 days. He was arrested two hours after speaking to Aristide on the telephone, and told he was being arrested for disturbing the peace.

"It must be recognised that Aristide was elected and then we must prepare for his return," he said. "You are going to have to deal with the election anyway. We are not going to participate [without Aristide]. It's going to be like the election in Iraq. It will be futile." To what extent the priest was sticking to the party line was unclear. If he has been selected as Aristide's successor - at least by Aristide himself - he may feel obliged to talk of a possible return. But when asked if Aristide actually wanted to return to Haiti, he deflected the question. When asked a second time, there was a brief but noticeable pause before he said he believed Aristide did.

The following day, sitting on the breezy terrace of hillside hotel, the muffled noise of the city in the background, another Lavalas leader said he believed that it was vital for the party to begin election preparations. Yvon Feuille, a popular senator from the city of Port Salut, another political prisoner who was released after international pressure, said that the interim government, for all its talk of opening a national dialogue, was doing everything it could to prevent Lavalas from getting itself organised. "That is the debate within Lavalas at the moment - whether to boycott the election or take part. The problem is that, if the people boycott, they don't have a chance," he said. "At the same time, I say to the international community that we have to have the same rights as the other political parties."

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The average income per capita may be as little as £800 a year. Given its seemingly persistent instability and poverty, many commentators have been tempted to simply write it off as a failed state, doomed to political disaster. But as Feuille and others point out, its problems have not all taken place in a vacuum; the country that became the first black republic in 1804 has suffered from a fatal mixture of economic neglect and political interference.

Even now, with a supposedly "acceptable" interim government installed, the attitude of wealthier nations appears at best ambivalent. Washington, which has recently spent many millions of dollars upgrading its embassy in Port-au-Prince, seems more driven by concern about a new batch of refugees washing up on its Florida beaches than about Haiti itself.

Two weeks ago, the World Bank announced it would release $73m in cash to Haiti's government but only after Haiti paid $52m in arrears. Canada "helped" by giving Haiti another loan of $13m to help pay off its debt. More than half of the $1.2bn in "aid" for Haiti, announced at a donors' conference in Washington last summer, is made up of loans that must be repaid.

To get a different perspective on why things do not have to be like this, to get a sense of Haiti's genuine potential, one needs only to take a three-hour drive across the mountains to the coastal city of Jacmel, the country's former capital. While it is a bustling place, there is none of the chaos of Port-au-Prince and little of the violence. It is a calm, likeable place next to the sea and yet the one thing lacking is tourism. There have been barely any foreign tourists to Haiti since the end of the Duvalier regime, but Jacmel had always been popular with the Haitian elite and its small middle class. In the 12 months since Aristide's departure, all that has changed.

Eric Danies owns the Jacmelienne Hotel by the beach. Certainly by Haitian standards, Danies is a very wealthy man and, according to the usual analysis, one might expect him to have supported Aristide's ousting. Instead, he says that in the past year he has watched business plunge.

"Since Aristide's departure we have seen our occupancy rate fall from 75 per cent to 10 per cent," he said. "The insecurity has increased for ordinary Haitians. They used to hold a lot of seminars here. Groups used to come to the provinces. Those groups are getting rarer and rarer. People are being told not to venture out of Port-au-Prince. The Haitian diaspora used to come here to visit their families. They have not been doing that."

From where Danies was sitting at the bar, one looks straight out across a gleaming blue sea and over an almost empty beach. The proprietor gestured to the view in front of him and reflected that this was a perfect location for tourists, a place to come and unwind. "This is what we have been trying to promote," he sighed. "And it's not the only thing that Haiti has to offer. The skills of the people here have never been fully exploited."

THE BLOODY YEARS

1957 

François Duvalier (Papa Doc) elected president after seizing power in a military coup.

1986 

In response to widespread protests, Papa Doc's successor, his son Jean-Claude, flees the island.

1990 

Jean-Bertrand Aristide elected as president.

1991 

Aristide overthrown in a coup led by General Raoul Cedras.

1993 

The Haitian military refuses to agree on an accord allowing Aristide to resume the presidency. Failure to sign forces the UN to impose sanctions.

1994 

The US threatens to invade Haiti and the military regime quickly surrenders power.

1995 

René Préval elected president.

1999 

Préval terminates parliament and rules by decree.

2000 

Aristide elected president.

2001 

July: Three separate attacks kill four police officers. Former army officers are accused of plotting a coup.

December: 12 people are killed in a raid on the National Palace.

2002 

Haiti becomes a member of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) trade bloc.

2004 

January/February: Violent rebel protests against President Aristide disrupt celebrations of Haiti's independence. Aristide is forced into exile.

May: More than 2,000 are reported to have been killed following devastating floods in the south.

September: A tropical storm brings more flooding, this time in the north. Almost 3,000 are killed.

November: Violence erupts in the capital and armed gangs supporting Aristide are reportedly responsible for several deaths.

Copyright: The Independent.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

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