We Haitians, among a plethora of firsts, have always prided ourselves on being the first country to abolish slavery as well as being the first black independent republic. Last month, however, we earned another first of which we should not be so proud: We are the first nation to swear in two presidents on the same day in the same city.
On the morning of February 7, minutes before Jean-Bertrand Aristide was about to become the first Haitian president to be democratically reelected, somewhere in Port-au-Prince members of an opposition coalition calling themselves the Democratic Convergence were selecting a parallel president.
There are many reasons to be worried about Haiti’s first “virtual government.” Foremost is the prospect of civil war.
The key issue raised by the opposition is the method of tabulating the vote in the May 21, 2000, parliamentary elections. In a letter sent to outgoing U.S. president Bill Clinton last December, Aristide promised “rapid rectification of the problems associated with the May 21 elections through runoffs for disputed Senate seats . . . “: a covenant that was acknowledged by Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell during his confirmation hearings and endorsed by President Bush in a February 13 letter to Aristide. This was one stipulation in an eight-point agreement that is considered a sine qua non for the international community to resume financial aid to Haiti.
Ironically, Aristide’s popular Lavalas Party, which would have won runoffs in any event, fell victim to our self-destructive amour propre Haitien, digging in its heels for more than six months and refusing to accept corrections of elections flaws.
The Convergence, an incongruous bevy of some 15 parties whose paltry membership is largely composed of the upper middle class, chose Gérard Gourgue, an educator and jurist, as its president. In November 1987, Gourgue, now 75, ran for president in elections that were aborted by the military when they and their paramilitary gangs murdered dozens of people at a polling place in Port-au-Prince. Strangely, one of the first promises made by Gourgue was to restore the army, which was disbanded by Aristide in 1995, one year after he was returned to power by U.S. troops. So it is no coincidence that hundreds of former army officers took to the streets three weeks ago to demand the reinstatement of that dreaded institution.
Haiti today is reminiscent of Jamaica in the mid ’70s, when the U.S., claiming that Castro was getting too chummy with Prime Minister Michael Manley, helped arm the partisans of then rival Edward Seaga, practically staging a bantam civil war in the country. Dozens of Jamaicans were killed.
While the U.S. forces were in Haiti, responding to requests by the United Nations and Aristide to disarm thousands of paramilitary gang members, they established a gun buy-back program. The $50 per gun the U.S. was offering did not yield much. Today those unretrieved guns and weapons owned by some 7000 Haitian army officers, many of whom were trained at the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, are being used to commit crimes throughout Haiti.
Against this backdrop, talk of bringing back the military—which in 1991 staged the bloodiest coup in the country’s history—along with a bristling underground arms bazaar in Port-au-Prince, represents a chilling prospect. Part of the current gun trade is an outgrowth of Colombian drug cartels using Haiti and the Dominican Republic as transshipment hubs, with the result that automatic weapons are readily available to anyone for a pittance.
In the wake of the ex-military’s brazen performance in the streets, Aristide supporters began demonstrating all over Haiti, especially in Port-au-Prince. Thick plumes of black smoke from the so familiar tire barricades soon enveloped most of the capital. Along with rock throwing, this continued until early last week. But around midday on Tuesday, the street protests degenerated into real battles, which left three people shot dead and scores injured.
Wednesday evening, in a speech broadcast in New York by Radio Soleil d’Haiti, a Brooklyn-based subcarrier that claims 500,000 listeners in the tristate area, Aristide asked “all political parties to keep on expressing political opinions without violence . . . but you cannot have two governments in place.” As if to warn the Convergence, he added, “To have peace, you have to live by the laws.”
Michael Zarin of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization, doesn’t hide where his group stands. “Aristide’s acts to date,” Zarin told the Voice, “are not those of someone seriously committed to the cause of democracy. Words are not enough,” he continued. “He must act to stop the violence.”
Zarin’s sentiments reflect the attitude of the Bush State Department. “The [U.S.-trained] police response has been erratic and slow,” said spokesman Richard Boucher. “We urge the Aristide government to respond quickly and professionally to protect all of the people of Haiti.” Boucher did not address the anomaly of the country having two presidents.
The Convergence, whose main outside support comes from the IRI and Senator Jesse Helms, claims that its member parties were prevented from running by Lavalas last year. It is no secret that these parties have little in common but their hatred of Aristide.
Since the end of the Cold War, Haiti has lost its geopolitical significance and therefore its purpose for the United States. Today, instead of cajoling the right wing, the U.S. seems primarily interested in having any kind of Haitian government that can stem the flow of black refugees to Jeb Bush’s Florida. Beyond this, Haiti offers a pool of cheap labor and a new market in which to dump goods and crops subsidized by American taxpayers.
With so much pressure being wielded on Aristide, the obvious question is why he has not reconnected with the diaspora, which was instrumental in bringing him back to Haiti in 1994. “A few months after Aristide’s return,” said a computer analyst and former core supporter who did not wish to be identified, “he surrounded himself with people who see the diaspora as Haitians wanting to take their jobs away. Today the lines of communication are almost nonexistent.”
Indeed, the once stentorian voice of nearly 1.5 million people, who, from 1991 to 1994, staged protest after protest in Washington, New York, Paris, and elsewhere, is all but mum. “How can we take to the streets when he [Aristide] does not tell us what he’s doing?” asked another partisan who requested that his name not be published.
Yet, in spite of their cooling relationship with Aristide, most Haitians in the diaspora believe that even if the U.S. and Europe continue to withhold funds from Haiti, any concession by Aristide before Haiti’s “parallel government” is disbanded guarantees that the opposition parties will move further.
Is there any hope? Confronted with the escalating violence, Haiti’s first “virtual president,” Gourgue, told the Associated Press last week: “Our lives are in jeopardy. The government and the police have abandoned the country to street thugs.”
Candor or Freudian slip, he was obviously alluding to the Aristide government.