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"The first tripwire [ in Haiti] will be if the Peace Corps pulls out
"The first tripwire [ in Haiti] will be if the Peace Corps pulls out
Protest march is blocked
By Tim Collie
Posted February 13 2004
PORT-AU-PRINCE · Roving bands of pro-government militants built flaming barricades and patrolled sections of Haiti's capital city on Thursday, crushing a planned protest by the opposition calling for the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
For the second time in a week, the Democratic Platform opposition movement backed down under threats by the president's partisans, who have described them as terrorists linked to violent rebellions elsewhere around the country.
Although reliable figures are hard to come by, dozens of people have been killed in uprisings in Gonaives, the country's fourth largest city, and 11 other smaller towns and cities since the uprising began a week ago Thursday. In Gonaives, reporters were shown the charred remains of an alleged hitman for Aristide who was killed by rebels who set him aflame with a gasoline-soaked tire around his neck.
Despite international criticism of Aristide's government and calls for his ouster, the former Catholic priest has vowed to remain in power until his term expires in 2006. The leaders of the opposition, who allege Aristide's party improperly swept contested legislative elections in 2000, said they plan to attempt another march on Sunday, when many Haitians will be in the streets leaving church.
"I believe Jean-Bertrand Aristide has declared war on the Haitian people," said Evans Paul, a former Aristide campaign manager and writer who is now a leading member of the Democratic Convergence opposition group. "It's unacceptable."
At least three people were assaulted in Port-au-Prince, including a photographer with Agence French Presse who was hit in the back and temporarily forced to give up the film from his camera. A U.S. Embassy official observing the action from a car reportedly was threatened with a pistol before he fled, The Associated Press reported. None of the injuries appeared to be serious, and no deaths were reported.
In Canape Vert, a middle-class neighborhood where the march was scheduled to begin, pro-Aristide street toughs known as chimere walked down the middle of streets brandishing rocks and tire irons.
They dragged the rusting hulks of several cars into the street, and lit piles of tires on fire in other places. Dressed in loose-fitting pants and shirts and sporting bandanas, the young men appeared to be organized by leaders patrolling the area in cars with heavily tinted windshields.
Dozens of supporters of the president gathered in the park where the march was to begin and chanted, "If Aristide is not there, who is going to replace him?"
Those gathered at the Canape Vert park said they were there to prevent a coup d'etat, specifically the takeover of a police station next to the park.
Police stations have been the targets for rebels around the country. "I'm demonstrating here because I voted for a president to serve five years, and that's what I want," said Harold Geffrard, 37, a merchant. "This country has had enough coups. We need to keep our presidents in power and not let these 184 rich people overthrow our democratically elected president."
Geffrard was referring to the Group of 184, a coalition of business owners, trade groups and grassroots organizations that has united to demand Aristide's resignation. On Thursday, the group's leader, Andy Apaid, called on the international community to help resolve the situation. But the organization has refused to negotiate with Aristide or support his call for new elections as long as the former priest stays in power.
"We are a peaceful opposition with our shirts in our pants," said Apaid, stressing that his supporters do not carry guns in their clothes and are not in league with the armed rebels who have led the uprising in a dozen Haitian cities and towns over the past week. "As long as Aristide is using this tactic of arming his supporters and sending them in the streets to menace his opponents, there is no way that we can go to any elections.
"The international community has to get involved and come up with a mechanism that permits peaceful elections in this country," Apaid said. "If Aristide is so popular, why is he so afraid to let us march?"
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration does not seek "regime change" in Haiti, but is "disappointed" in Aristide's failure to build "a functioning, stable democracy."
Caribbean leaders also said that Aristide should not be forced from office by violence. Trinidad Prime Minister Patrick Manning and other leaders from the 15-member Caribbean Community, or Caricom, have been trying for weeks to negotiate a solution to Haiti's crisis in talks with both Aristide and opposition leaders.
"As far as Caricom is concerned, President Aristide was elected to office," Manning said. To advocate Aristide's resignation would be to help "perpetrate a coup."
Despite the recent violence, and State Department suggestions that Americans and U.S. Embassy workers leave Haiti, there were few signs that any were poised to depart. Thousands of Americans -- including many Christian missionaries and foreign aid workers -- live in small towns, remote villages and regions throughout Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Their departure could lead to a dramatic downward spiral in the country's fortunes.
"We're starting to see signs that people are getting nervous. College groups are postponing their trips here, and I lost one volunteer this week," said Patrick Moynihan, who has lived in Haiti since 1996, running a school for gifted children. "But quite frankly, we're safe. Nobody is bothering us. I have a wife and four children and I want to stay."
Moynihan and others said that the international community might be looking for signs in the coming weeks that the situation is worsening. "The first tripwire will be if the Peace Corps pulls out, because that's going to really hurt the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who need more volunteers," Moynihan said. "The second sign would be if Aristide lost control over the international airport here. If flights cannot get in, then you'll see an evacuation.
"But the final sign will be if the students and the opposition decide to take up arms -- that will change everything."
Religious volunteers, who make up a substantial portion of the weekly travelers arriving in Haiti, have reported few problems in the countryside.
"We thought about canceling, but our people here said it was fine," said Ed Verville, a veterinarian from South Carolina who recently spent a week in La Gonave, an island off the east coast.
"Quite frankly, these people in the countryside are too tired or poor to even care what's going on in the cities. They're living hand to mouth," Verville said. "Everyone we met supported the opposition, but they didn't really want to get involved."
Haiti has suffered 32 coups in 200 years, the last in 1991 when Aristide was ousted after he became the Caribbean nation's first, freely elected leader. President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops in 1994 to end brutal military rule, restore Aristide and halt an exodus of boat people to Florida.
Sun-Sentinel wire services contributed to this report. Tim Collie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4573.
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