Aristide’s Tinderbox


Pierre Fabienne cradles his baby in his arms as his girlfriend, a shy-eyed beauty, stands in the doorway of their home on a noisy lane in Port-au-Prince’s impoverished Cite Soleil quarter. Fabienne, a gang leader and supporter of embattled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was instrumental in organizing a cease-fire among most of the district’s warring factions last February. He hasn’t gotten much in return for his efforts at diplomacy.

“I’ve sat with Aristide many times and I still have nothing,” says Fabienne (not his real name). “I still have the same room that I pay $300 for six months”—about U.S. $50—”no TV, no nothing, and Aristide knows that I’m a militant for change. He knows I fight for him. When he has something in Port-au-Prince, he calls us. When he wants people to go to his rally in Leogane, he calls us. When he’s afraid of a coup d’état, he calls us. He wants us to stay in Cite Soleil, so no one hears about Cite Soleil, so he can call on us whenever he needs us to do something.”

In Haiti’s ramshackle and decaying capital of 2 million, where exuberantly colored tap-tap buses speed through congested streets blaring sinuous compas music and dark, mysterious mountains rise out of the bay, Cite Soleil’s 200,000 residents have long formed the backbone of support for Aristide. Just north of Fort Dimanche—a former prison and torture center favored by former dictators Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier now turned into a squatter camp—and pinioned away from the rest of the city by dusty, potholed Route Nationale 1, Cite Soleil is a place where political activism and a criminal element born of desperate poverty exist side by side.

The tension between the two worlds exploded last month when Amiot Metayer, a political militant and gang leader, was freed by machine-gun-wielding members of his “Cannibal Army,” who attacked the Gonaives jail he was being held in with a bulldozer. Metayer had been arrested on suspicion of ordering buildings torched during an outbreak of violence with a rival gang leader. Upon his release, he denounced Aristide, vowing to “fight to the death” any attempt to put him back in prison.

Once, people like Metayer and Fabienne celebrated Aristide. After his first election in 1990, it was the people of the slums who danced in the streets, carrying Aristide’s picture and rejoicing at the ouster of the military dictatorship. When Aristide was himself ousted in a bloody coup d’état the next year, the residents of Cite Soleil fought for his return. They endured the nighttime terror of raids by the FRAPH (Front Révolutionnaire Pour l’Avancement et le Progrès d’Haiti) death squads, and often turned up tortured on narrow muddy lanes for uttering the deposed president’s name.

Today, however, it is these same militants, claiming they feel forgotten and betrayed, who have begun to call for Aristide’s removal, and for the dismissal of both his ruling Lavalas Family political party and Haiti’s roundly loathed political opposition, the Convergence Democratique coalition. They argue it’s the only way to restore the hope of a just nation that people in the district had fought for for so long. This is no polite debate.

In May, three local activists were shot dead by police, who later claimed to have been attacked by gangs. Local residents, for their part, charged the activists were shot while arriving at an arranged meeting with police. The killings triggered two days of shooting between police and gangs, leaving a pervasive suspicion among locals that, having outlived their usefulness, the militants have become targets.

When asked about the situation at a recent press conference, Aristide replied: “The people of Cite Soleil are the sons and daughters of the country. Their rights are violated when they cannot eat; their rights are violated when they cannot go to school. We must work with all sectors, the opposition and the elite, to improve their lives. We are committed to working with them and we will not rest until we do that.”

“We have to protect the rights of every citizen,” Aristide added, “but we must also protect those who are visiting Haiti and who live in Haiti.”

In Cite Soleil, people are preparing to protect themselves. “I don’t think that this government will change, and I don’t think that the opposition will change, either,” says Dessalines Jacques, a muscular man who takes his name from Haiti’s greatest hero, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, creator of the national flag and victor over the colonizing French. This Dessalines, clad in a blue tank top, has just finished inspecting bags of weapons—9mms, shotguns, and M-1s—that Cite Soleil has held in its grasp to ensure it will never again be defenseless.

He says the people need a rache manyok, a peasant expression that literally means to “pull up your manioc”—a root vegetable—but is used by militants to mean getting rid of something tainted or corrupt. “We could form a new political movement, but we cannot do it on our own,” he says. “We need all of Haiti’s nine departments, plus the Tenth Department”—the name Aristide gave to the estimated 1 million Haitians living abroad—”because we are the children of the Tenth Department. And they know that their children are suffering here.”

However shakily, Aristide remains in control; he was re-elected in November 2000 with little opposition. That would have come from the Convergence Démocratique coalition, a motley group of social democrats and ex-authoritarian functionaries with scant public support and pronounced distaste for the Haitian masses. But Convergence members contended the parliamentary elections held earlier were tabulated to favor Aristide’s Lavalas party, so they sat out the presidential round.

The Organization of American States has been attempting to broker a deal ever since. Following a mysterious attack on the National Palace by nearly two dozen gunmen last December 17, thousands of armed Aristide partisans, including the youth of Cite Soleil, took to the streets, burning down headquarters and private homes affiliated with the Convergence and, in their words, “defending our palace and defending our president.”

Accusations of electoral rigging from Convergence have led to the suspension of $500 million of desperately needed international aid. The group is further demanding that the government not only pay reparations but also disarm militant government supporters. In the meantime, capital residents witness daily scenes of armed convoys of Lavalas officials—who have been continually embroiled in scandal—speeding by in bulletproof SUVs as street children wash their faces in puddles of rainwater.

Some in the slums say they’re not ready to abandon faith in their president’s promise of reform. “We cannot forget what Aristide has been for us, and we will always be on his side when we see things being done,” says Wily Sauvenur, a studious, bearded young man. Sauvenur (not his real name) is carrying a manila envelope containing the freshly printed stationery of a new political movement, the Organizasyon Revolisyone Chalo Jaklen, named after a murdered pro-democracy activist and founded the day militants stormed the National Palace. “But we will not support this or any government when we see nothing being done, and right now we see him sitting with the gwo manje—”high-living political types”—and living like them. Now is not like the days of the coup d’état. We’re armed and we’re very determined to change this country and they know that, and they will have to deal with us.”

Haiti’s poor have always had to fight. “In 1991, when the military made Aristide go and began killing our families, we were 10, 12—we were small kids,” says Labanier, another self-described political activist. “We are not militants out of the blue. Our fathers and mothers were already militants, against Duvalier, against the military, because it was always bad here and people here always cling onto the dream that things can change.”

The chimere, as the largely male and jobless contingent of Haitian society is often called, have been used as a political tool in Haiti for many years. Government and opposition leaders alike draw on the clannish—but not necessarily criminal—gang culture powered by the very real threats young men face in the slums.

“My mother died in ’91 when FRAPH came and killed her in Cite Soleil, then they kidnapped my father in 1994 and killed him, too,” says Pierre Fabienne, who rallied government partisans on the streets after being contacted by Haitian National Police forces in the early morning hours of December 17. “One day I think the people will stand up to defend their rights. If they keep doing this, if Aristide kills me, if he kills Labanier, all the gangs will come out and he will lose his power. We’ll have a rache manyok again.”

In the surreal landscape that can be Haiti today—pro-bin Laden graffiti scrawled on crumbling walls, former comedians rallying pro-government partisans with apocalyptic anti-foreign rhetoric—the situation of the militants of Cite Soleil and other neighborhoods is perhaps the clearest sign of just how grave things can become. “One day, man, I’d like to be able to give up this politics,” says Fabienne, looking down the hill at the shacks and the naked, laughing children. “If not, I’ll die and I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

Fabienne remembers the days of the U.S. invasion that returned Aristide to power. Ten years old then, he became something of a mascot to the visiting American soldiers and the journalists who accompanied them. He shined the boots of General Henry Shelton, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, “so they looked like mirrors,” he says, and one American photographer even bought him some basic photo equipment, which he wore strung around his neck with obvious pride.

“I’ve done too much work for politics,” Fabienne says, though he refuses to give up hope that Haiti can change. “Now, too many people hate me, and they hate what I say. But it’s for this I try to help my little son, so we can arrive at a new place.”

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