- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A year after U.S. Marines whisked elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide away to exile in Africa, the

jury is still out on whether an interim government backed by a U.N. peacekeeping mission can restore stability and democratic rule in Haiti, or whether it will return to its former violence and ruin.

Recent events have not been encouraging.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, a handful of gunmen stormed the national penitentiary here in the capital and freed more than 480 prisoners, though U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police were just three blocks away.

Shortly after, a gang murdered at least 10 persons in the seaside slum called God’s Village, an area patrolled by Sri Lankan peacekeepers. The following day, the bodies of five persons killed by gunshots lay in the streets of the pro-Aristide neighborhood of Bel Air after a police operation. Witnesses said hooded, black-clad policemen executed them.

Police fire at march

On Monday of last week, Haitian police fired at a peaceful march of Aristide supporters in Bel Air on the first anniversary of his ouster, leaving a 26-year-old man dead and others injured.

The police seemed unconcerned at the presence of foreign reporters and Brazilian peacekeepers, some of whom were livid afterward because they accompanied the demonstrators and had been in the line of fire.

[Justice Minister Bernard Gousse accused U.N. peacekeepers Saturday of violating their mandate, saying the force blocked police from observing a protest in a slum stronghold of Aristide supporters, the Associated Press reports.

[Mr. Gousse said police who tried to observe another march Friday in Bel Air were blocked by U.N. troops. “They didn’t say, ‘Please don’t show up.’ They told police in an aggressive way not to show up,” Mr. Gousse told AP.

[In a statement Friday, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said police agreed to restrict their presence, but Mr. Gousse said he would lodge a complaint today at a meeting with officials of the United Nations.]

Contradictory mission

As Haiti gears up for presidential elections in November, the shooting was an ominous sign in a nation with a history of political violence and voting-day massacres. It also reflected the contradictions inherent in the U.N. mission, whose mandate requires it to protect and promote human rights and to support an unelected government accused of persecuting opponents and tolerating summary executions.

“We’re treading a very fine line and getting pushed by both sides,” said a high-ranking U.N. official who asked not to be named. “There is a limit to the leverage we have on this government. Some very powerful countries want the police to stay just as it is. Other countries do not agree. … We cannot come out and publicly denounce this government. We don’t want to jeopardize this mission, because if we left, then this country would really go to hell.”

U.N. peacekeepers who replaced U.S. Marines and French troops last June have been criticized for standing by as armed gangs and police kill each other — as well as residents of the poor neighborhoods where most of the killings take place.

U.N. officials respond by saying their mandate limits the mission to supporting the appointed government, and they point to the late arrival of U.N. police and soldiers.

Aid, disarmament lag

Both Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and U.N. officials complain about the slowness of promised aid: Only 10 percent of more than $1 billion pledged by international donors and lenders has begun to be disbursed.

Meanwhile, a disarmament program led by the United Nations has not yet started, meaning elections will take place as numerous armed groups roam the country, including criminal gangs, armed supporters of the ousted Mr. Aristide, armed gangs backed by anti-Aristide political factions and former soldiers who control provincial cities and large swaths of the countryside after driving the police into hiding.

Discontent with the government has recently spread to some of Mr. Aristide’s detractors, including members of the business elite who initially supported Mr. Latortue, a former Haitian diplomat and longtime resident of Florida installed as Haiti’s interim premier by the United States last year.

Last month, a group of anti-Aristide political parties demanded Mr. Latortue’s resignation. He refused to step down and lashed out at his critics in a press conference.

“There is a small group of people in Haiti who cannot accommodate themselves to the democracy we want to establish in Haiti,” said Mr. Latortue, a former U.N. official and resident of Boca Raton, Fla., who lived outside of Haiti for nearly 42 years before being designated prime minister.

With Mr. Latortue continuing to receive the strong backing of the United States and Canada, which donated most of the money for planned elections, many anti-Aristide political figures appear to be gearing up for balloting.

Ex-soldiers restless

“The president and the prime minister are illegal and illegitimate, according to Haitian law,” said Guy Philippe, who led the armed attack of former soldiers in February 2004 that helped topple Mr. Aristide. “But if you get rid of Latortue, what next? What mechanism are we going to use to name a new prime minister? We’d plunge into total chaos.”

Mr. Philippe’s Front for National Reconstruction is one of about 100 registered political parties that could field candidates in local elections in October and the first round of presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 1. None of these parties has filled the void left by Mr. Aristide, who maintains strong support among the poor and arguably remains Haiti’s most popular leader.

Members of his Lavalas party have refused to participate in elections unless the elected president returns, and Mr. Aristide has given no indication he would endorse another candidate.

“We are going to stay away from elections if President Aristide does not come back to finish his mandate,” said the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest and Aristide ally who was imprisoned for six weeks by the government in a case that was deemed political persecution by the judge.

“Lavalas is still a majority in this country. If Aristide is not allowed to return, people are not going to vote,” said Father Jean-Juste.

So far, the announced elections seem to inspire more scorn than hope in the slums of Port-au-Prince. Nearly 15 years since Haiti’s poor flocked to the polls to make Mr. Aristide, then a Catholic priest, the country’s first elected president, many Haitians reject the planned November balloting.

“We won’t vote,” said an unemployed man, sitting on a dilapidated freezer in a near empty street of God’s Village, which many families have fled in fear of gangs and police.

“Elections are held and the people put the president in power, senators in power, every authority in power — and after that, they forget us,” he said, declining to give his name. “They take on a thousand bourgeois who are similar to them, and millionaires. Those who are already at the top go higher, and ourselves, the poor, we fall further down.”

Mr. Aristide, beloved by the poor, despised by the elite and distrusted by the Bush administration, became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in 1990. He was ousted in a coup after less than eight months in office, then was returned to power for little more than a year by U.S. Marines in 1994, and elected to a second term in 2000.

Subsequently, the economy sank as hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid was frozen over disputed elections, and opposition mounted as Mr. Aristide was accused of ruling autocratically and using armed gangs against his foes. Nevertheless, he continues to be seen by many poor Haitians as their only advocate.

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