Haitian rebels vow to topple Aristide

'In Haiti, fighting dictatorship is what we do.' In the port city of Gonaives, Andrew Gumbel finds the leaders of the uprising in confident mood
Click to follow
The Independent US

The rebels who have taken over the Haitian port city of Gonaives are in ebullient mood. It has been 10 days since they over-ran the town's police force, burned down the police station and jail, and threw up barricades around the outskirts of town to keep forces loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at bay.

The police have tried to retake control just once, only to beat a hasty retreat after an unspecified number were gunned down or "necklaced", their bodies mutilated and paraded around town. Since then, Gonaives has been left largely alone, a symbol of defiance against President Aristide's authority. It is also a vital strategic asset, since Haiti's only half-decent north-south road passes through Gonaives; rebel control is slowly choking off the northern half of the country.

For the rebels this isn't just a stunt. It is the start of a revolution they have every intention of seeing through to its logical conclusion: the downfall of the man once hailed as Haiti's very own Nelson Mandela but who is now reviled for his autocratic leadership style and utter failure to deliver any progress on the country's dire economic and social woes.

"We keep hearing the police are coming, but they will come just to die," said Winter Etienne, the mayor of free Gonaives and spokesman for the rebel movement. "We have more than 200 trained soldiers. And we have as many arms as we have people - if they do not have guns, they have machetes."

He and his fellow rebel leaders clearly mean business. Other towns that rebelled in Gonaives's wake have been quickly retaken and pummelled into submission through house-burnings and threats against anti-Aristide activists, but Gonaives is proving much more resilient.

The barricades on the road into town - buses clustered on a bridge, an armed checkpoint, burned-out trucks in the road, broken bottles and concrete bollards - would not pose much of a challenge to a decently equipped modern army. But in Haiti, where the only uniformed forces are police driving Toyota Landcruiser 4WDs, they are more than adequate to the task.

The rebels brandished an array of automatic and semi-automatic weapons that promised to outgun the ill-equipped police. And more seems to be on the way. Mr Etienne led a group of journalists to a heavily guarded wooden shack by the port where he showed off the rebels' newest asset - a former regional police chief and former army officer called Guy Philippe who has long been a sworn enemy of the President's. Mr Philippe, flanked by 12 paramilitary supporters, came out with some spirited rhetoric about taking the rest of the north and then marching on Port-au-Prince, the capital, to finish the job. "In Haiti, fighting dictatorship is what we do," he said.

The civilian boss of Gonaives, Butteur Metayer, even bragged that his men could do a better job in Iraq than the US. The occasion might have been stronger on theatrics than on hard reality, but it was the strongest indication to date that members of the armed forces disbanded by President Aristide a decade ago are now regrouping with the intention of seizing power.

Mr Philippe is a figure as feared as he is respected. He participated in the 1991 coup that deposed Mr Aristide after his first abortive ascent to the presidency. And he was fingered in a mysterious concatenation of events at the end of 2001 that Mr Aristide's entourage denounced as another coup attempt, forcing him to flee into exile in the Dominican Republic.

That 2001 "coup" - suspected by many to have been a hoax mounted by the President's men as an excuse to crack down on the opposition - is in many ways at the root of the current revolt.

President Aristide's man in Gonaives at the time was Butteur Metayer's brother Amiot, who embarked on a campaign of repression against opposition sympathisers so severe that the Organisation of American States and other groups pressured the government into arresting him and throwing him into jail. Amiot Metayer - nicknamed "le Cubain", or the Cuban - had more supporters than the government may have realised, however, because one month after his incarceration a group of them drove a bulldozer through the wall of the Gonaives prison and released him.

At that point, Mr Aristide chose to make up with Mr Metayer and put him in charge of Gonaives' lucrative customs and excise business. By all accounts, the Cuban spread the wealth around the community, Robin Hood style, thus cementing loyalty towards him even further. The international community was outraged that the Aristide government let Mr Metayer go after his prison breakout. According to the Metayer family, the first act of the new US ambassador, Richard Foley, on presenting his credentials last September was to tell Mr Aristide to put him behind bars again within 48 hours.

Right on that 48-hour deadline, on the evening of 21 September 2003, Amiot Metayer disappeared. His body later surfaced 50 miles south of Gonaives, with the top of his skull missing, his eyes gouged out and his heart removed. The town was in no doubt that President Aristide had ordered his murder, and vowed to take revenge.

At first it staged simple street demonstrations, but passions rose as the police used increasingly brutal tactics to quash the rebellion. People were killed and houses were burned. "Death was everywhere," Etienne Winter said. "We got mobilised and pulled all our supporters out of hiding." Insurrection quickly followed.

Diplomats and seasoned observers in Port-au-Prince said yesterday they believed Guy Philippe might well have the manpower and weaponry to extend the rebellion to other towns. Anti-Aristide sentiment is reaching boiling point, not helped by the repressive tactics of the police and the so-called "chimères", armed thugs from the slums sponsored by the government to maintain order.

Meanwhile, the Gonaives rebellion risks triggering a crisis in the north. Already towns are suffering electricity blackouts, petrol shortages and dwindling food supplies. The rebel leaders said that if anyone was hungry they would be welcome to come to Gonaives and join the revolution.