- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

An intractable dispute between Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his political foes, simmering for years, boiled over this month as street protests turned into insurrection and towns were seized by “thugs.”

In response, an official delegation made up of Americans, Canadians and French, as well as Caribbean neighbors of Haiti, was dispatched to the capital, Port-au-Prince, to present the feuding parties with a plan whose core element is a power-sharing arrangement for the remainder of Mr. Aristide’s term, which ends in February 2006.

The hope is that curtailing Mr. Aristide’s power will reduce the momentum of rebels threatening the capital, who are motivated chiefly by opposition to the president.

The international delegation was led by Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, with U.S. Ambassador James Foley playing a central role.

Mr. Aristide accepted the plan during the weekend, but the political opposition, which seeks his ouster, was deliberating as of last night.

Over the weekend, paramilitary forces captured Cap-Haitien, the country’s second-largest city, and threatened to storm Port-au-Prince.

Fifty U.S. Marines were rushed to Port-au-Prince yesterday to protect the American Embassy.

Early last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell set the stage for events to come, declaring that the United States would not accept Haiti’s president being ousted by “thugs and murderers.”

“We cannot buy into a proposition that an elected president can be forced from office by thugs,” Mr. Powell told reporters.

He said the uprising, which began in the city of Gonaives, was taking on new dimensions as bandits and political exiles sought to exploit the instability. “They are murderers and thugs, and you can’t expect anyone to deal [with them],” Mr. Powell said.

The hope of the international community is that the power-sharing plan, which calls for an independent premier and a new Cabinet to replace the administration led by Premier Yves Neptune, will be accepted by both sides, because the risk of not doing so would pose dangers for all concerned.

Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and proponent of liberation theology, faces a coup similar to the one that deposed him in 1991 just seven months after his election to office by 74 percent of the vote.

For the political opposition, the danger is that its plans for a three-year alternative to Mr. Aristide would devolve into another military dictatorship, a kind of coup within a coup.

“The opposition plan is for a three-year transition to set the stage for free elections and a democratic government,” said Terry Thielen, a volunteer at the Haiti Democracy Project in the United States. The organization is led by James Morrell, a former Aristide supporter who now espouses an anti-Aristide view.

Late last month, about 200 members of the group protested in Washington in front of the Haitian Embassy and nearby Sheridan Circle.

“We are here to deliver the message that the Haitian president’s promise of deliverance has failed and that his corrupt dictatorship must give way to democracy,” said a young man in his 20s who refused to identify himself.

He seemed bewildered when asked how democracy is served by ousting an elected president.

The thugs in the streets of northern Haiti mentioned by Mr. Powell have been identified in news service reports as former members of the army, which Mr. Aristide dissolved in 1995.

Witnesses say the thugs are led by Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former soldier who once led the murderous paramilitary FRAPH — the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti.

Also mentioned was Guy Philippe, a police chief for the military junta that overthrew Mr. Aristide in 1991. He was the man who threatened to storm the capital.

Such paramilitary groups often have been used to prop up Haitian dictatorships. As the Tonton Macoutes, they shielded the father-and-son Duvalier dynasty.

Under Gen. Raoul Cedras, a dictator who held power from the time Mr. Aristide was ousted to 1994, when U.S. forces muscled the strongman out, the paramilitaries reportedly killed and maimed hundreds of Aristide loyalists.

For the United States, a new upheaval poses the threat of another flood of refugees washing ashore in Florida as they seek to escape the chaos triggered by the fall of a government.

Such a development would add fuel to the burning immigration debate in America and elsewhere, and possibly lead to refugees being quarantined at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Although Mr. Powell insisted that Washington’s goal does not include forcing out Mr. Aristide, a longtime critic of State Department action on Haiti said he was skeptical that there would be a balanced approach.

Larry Birns, head of the left-of-center Council for Hemispheric Affairs, said last week that “the issue now becomes whether hedged official explanations of the new mission leave open the possibility that Aristide will be pressured to step down, to cut short his term of office or to yield a large measure of authority.”

But Mr. Powell, in an interview with Sam Donaldson on “Live in America,” appeared to favor a more balanced approach.

“We’re doing what we can to put together a political plan that we will offer to President Aristide and also to the political opposition,” Mr. Powell said in the interview on the morning radio show.

“And I think if they will both accept this plan and start executing it, we might find a way through this crisis politically,” he said.

Asked whether the plan would include the possibility of Mr. Aristide stepping down, the secretary of state replied:

“That’s not an element of the plan, because under the constitution, he is the president for some time to come yet. You know, if an agreement is reached that moves that in another direction, that’s fine. But right now, he has no intention to step down, and since he is the elected leader of Haiti, we should not be putting forward a plan that would require him to step down.”

This year, Haiti marks its bicentennial as an independent nation. Haiti was a French agricultural colony dependent on African slave labor from the late 1690s until independence in 1804.

Mr. Aristide became its first democratically elected president in 1990 and was overthrown by the military in September of the following year, bringing to power the dictatorship led by Gen. Cedras.

It took the threat of an American assault in 1994 to force out the junta and restore Mr. Aristide to power.

But his tenure was nearing its end and, under the 1987 Haitian Constitution, he could not have successive terms. Rene Preval, an Aristide ally, was elected president in 1995.

Five years later, Mr. Aristide was re-elected, with 15 percent of the electorate voting. Mr. Aristide was accused at home and abroad of election fraud, and international aid to the Haitian government was put on hold until he agreed to undertake reforms.

His popularity has declined at home, as has his government’s ability to provide social services. He vowed last week that he would die before allowing himself to be forced out again.

In two centuries of independence since the world’s first black-led revolution against modern colonialism, Haiti has held three democratic elections, all since Mr. Aristide’s rise to power.

The current political opposition, represented by the Democratic Platform, an amalgam of two movements — the Democratic Convergence and the Group of 184 — has appeared even less willing to negotiate with Mr. Aristide than he with them.

Such intransigence runs like a theme through Haiti’s past, where bullets speak louder than words. This prompted writers Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl to title their book “Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995,” considered by many the best history of that country in English.

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