Living on its nerves, Haiti braces for revolution

In Port-au-Prince, they wonder how long President Aristide will last and how bloody the endgame will be, reports Phil Davison
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The Independent US

'Aristide for five years." The slogan is everywhere, mostly in graffiti, on the crumbling walls of this beleaguered capital. Now, even the Haitian President's supporters wonder if he'll last another five days. Rumours circulating last night on Haiti's most reliable communications network, the teledjiol, literally the jaws television but in fact the nation's word-of-mouth bush telegraph, spoke of a matter of hours.

The President was packed and ready to leave, went the story. Negotiations were going on involving French and US diplomats. Aristide's money in the US had been blocked. He would agree to go if the money were freed. Others said this may be yet another attempt to paint the President as a mercenary no better than the military or civilian dictators who have peppered this nation's history.

An unusual quietness on the streets yesterday evening suggested a negotiated settlement may now be more likely than a civil war.

The little priest who swept to power in a wave of euphoria after people-power forced out the dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, was last night thought to be closeted with his wife, Mildred, in the otherwise almost-deserted presidential palace where Baby Doc used to sniff cocaine, hold voodoo ceremonies and rule his impoverished people with an iron fist and his dreaded Tontons Macoutes militia.

The scene outside the white-painted toytown palace was surreal, with no guards visible, despite the tension, and chewing gum vendors leaning against its railings.

With rebels controlling much of the country and said to be infiltrating towards the capital, Mrs Aristide had earlier packed off their two children and sent them abroad, possibly to Florida. They were not the only ones leaving. There were scenes of chaos at Toussaint Louverture international airport yesterday as Haitians fought for places on what they feared might be the last flights out.

Poor Haitians, most of the population, could not afford to leave, even if they had somewhere to go.

They stood on street corners and emerged onto rickety slum balconies as families of United Nations personnel passed by in a long convoy to the airport. They had a charter plane waiting but they looked nervous, many of them with bewildered infants.

US Marines supposed to escort the convoy on Wednesday called it off at the last minute, saying the streets were too dangerous, with armed pro-Aristide supporters manning roadblocks and relieving motorists of cash or belongings. Yesterday, it was special troops from the State Department's diplomatic security unit who escorted the civilians in what started as a high speed chase with 50 media vehicles behind then among them.

At one point, the convoy got stuck in a typical Port-au-Prince traffic jam, forcing the American troops to jump from their vehicles and aim their M-4 assault rifles at surrounding rooftops.

It was something right out of the 1994 film Clear and Present Danger, one of the Americans told me, referring to a tense shoot-out scene involving CIA officials in Colombia. "We also had to stop to remove roadblocks but we made it,'' he said.

While we were stationery, Haitians tried to sell the Americans paintings. In another bizarre scene, a red-headed white man who could have passed for American actor Willem Dafoe, popped his head above the fence of a home.

"Who are you?" we asked.

"I'm an American merchant ship's captain. I've lived here 21 years. What's all this fuss?''

You could almost feel the sense of abandonment as Haitians watched the UN people leave. They'd seen it all before, whenever times got rough. How they would react if their once-beloved little President departed was by no means clear. The rebels, led by former Duvalierist army officers, have threatened to invade the capital. Its pro-Aristide defenders, known as chimères, or phantoms, are armed with old and motley weapons. They may fight, or they may simply blend back into the background and go home. They were less visible last night than they had been for some days.

There has been a growing feeling that the Bush administration was determined to see Aristide go, undermining him for months with less-than-subtle propaganda. On Tuesday, a man described as a Haitian cocaine baron, before being sentenced to 27 years in prison and a fine covering his $30m (£16m) assets, claimed Mr Aristide had long been involved in the mass drugs transit from Colombia through Haiti and on to the US.

Beaudoin Ketant told a judge in Miami that the Haitian President "is a drug lord. He controlled the drug traffic. He turned Haiti into a narco country. Mr Aristide's American lawyers described the claim as garbage, and part of the US administration's attempts to "politically assassinate" the Haitian leader.

Ketant claimed the President's police had kidnapped him and handed him over to US Drugs Enforcement Administration agents who whisked him to the US. Whether or not Mr Aristide was involved, or even had any knowledge of drugs trafficking, Ketant's comments did make clear that Colombian drugs had continued to move through Haiti after Baby Doc Duvalier's downfall, and the disbandment of the Haitian armed forces during Mr Aristide's rule.

As the UN personnel left their compound yesterday, red graffiti on the wall outside read "The DEA and Aristide are twins". Talk of an armed international "peace force" meant nothing to most Haitians. Nor does France's call for a government of national unity. They have seen it all before. The foreign forces, diplomats and international aid and diplomatic workers live in relative luxury in the hills above Port-au-Prince, the capital. In the valley below, millions live in squalid shanty homes, drinking the dirty water that runs down the gutters and squatting to perform their bodily functions in full view of one another on garbage heaps.

It is the extent of the squalor, and the growth of television showing them how the other half live, that drives Haitians to pay out their life savings to cram themselves on board rickety boats and attempt to negotiate the treacherous Windward Passage. No one will ever know how many do not make it to the shores of Florida. There are no records, just grieving families. For those who do make it, unless they can evade the US coastguard and terrestrial authorities, all they can look forward to is a hot meal, a blanket and a free return trip to their country courtesy of the American government.

As the UN convoy drove through the pock-marked and litter-strewn streets of the capital, they passed scenes that must have changed little in the 200 years of Haiti's independence and more. A shirtless man hauled a huge cart, made to be pulled by a horse, full of iron and vehicle parts, using only his elbows and upper arms to balance and pull the load. Vendors sold charcoal in the middle of narrow streets while chewing on sticks of sugar cane, the staple diet for many. Mr Aristide promised to change all this but had so far failed.

Even in the wake of Haiti's elaborate celebrations of 200 years of independence from France at the New Year, Mr Aristide clearly looked to France as his last real friend in the world. He was said to have been shocked by signals from Paris this week that France would prefer him to step down. Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, said Mr Aristide "bears great responsibility for the current situation". He did not directly call on him to resign but other French Foreign Ministry officials did. Haitians spoke yesterday of a feeling of déjà vu. They waited in their homes as Baby Doc Duvalier's regime swiftly collapsed. When Duvalier eventually left, on 7 February 1986, it was in the small hours of the morning on a military plane provided by the government that had supported him for most of his, and his father's rule, totalling almost 30 years.

Even after there were reports that he had left in darkness, Haitians did not emerge until 12 hours later, creating a spontaneous carnival and dancing outside the presidential palace. There will be no outburst of joy if Mr Aristide departs. People are too afraid that the old military officers who overthrew the little priest in 1991 but were in turn ousted by a virtually bloodless US military intervention will emerge from hiding and attempt to retain power.

It now seems possible the so-called rebels may enter the capital sporadically, mingling with the population, something that seemed impossible only days ago when an assault on the city seemed imminent. Haitians believe army officers who helped overthrow Aristide and later went into hiding will re-emerge, either insisting on involvement in a national unity government or even attempting another coup. They may be encouraged by what many Haitians see as Mr Bush's determination not to become directly involved in the way Bill Clinton was.