Haiti's elite haunted by fear of revenge: Supporters of the embattled military regime dread a bloody repeat of 1791 when tormented slaves massacred their rich masters

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The Independent Online
THE American ambassador to Haiti denounced them as 'the morally repugnant elite' and now they call themselves defiantly - if just a shade nervously - 'the MREs'.

They are wealthy Haitians listed as supporting the military coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, whose bank accounts in the United States are frozen and American visas withdrawn. Sanctions have closed their factories and crippled their businesses.

At a dinner of small oysters from the south coast of Haiti followed by lobster fillet steaks, on the patio of a villa in Petionville overlooking Port-au-Prince, a group of MREs aired their grievances. Eloquent about the failings of American foreign policy, few felt responsible for the crisis.

'It's not that I care much about the dollars 6,200 ( pounds 4,130) they froze in my Miami bank account,' said a thick-set businessman who deals in building materials, 'but it is so unfair that my name is on the list. I did nothing to support the coup.' Others feared that if Fr Aristide returns, his supporters may take revenge on those identified by the US Embassy as supporters of the coup.

They have a lot to lose. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. In the shanty towns of Gite Soleil and Little Tokyo in Port-au-Prince, people sleep 10 to a room in shacks made out of corrugated iron and breeze blocks. Lanes are often blocked by dark grey pools of raw sewage.

The well-off - given local wage levels, it does not take great wealth to employ three or four servants - mostly live in and around Petionville, a large suburb of Port- au-Prince built along a steep road that zigzags into the mountains above the capital. The biggest hotels, the Montana and El Rancho, are here, as are the mansions of the richest families, protected by high walls and private guards.

Many MREs feel distaste for the Haitian army commander, General Raoul Cedras, and the Port-au-Prince police chief, Colonel Michel Francois. But their stake in the status quo is deep, and fear of retribution is pervasive. The best-remembered event in Haitan history took place in August 1791, when the slaves rose up and slaughtered 1,000 plantation owners and their families. Fears are deepened by racial differences. Wealthy Haitians are largely mulatto and known as 'Les Blancs' by most Haitians, who are black. At the dinner party in Petionville, a white businessman joked that a US immigration official had automatically listed him as black because of his Haitian passport.

If an American intervention force does land, it will wish to preserve the social status quo. American policy towards General Cedras for the past three years has been ambiguous. Washington dislikes Fr Aristide as a left-wing priest almost as much as it does the men who overthrew him. 'The factory owners now want the Americans to protect them,' an American woman who has lived long in Petionville said.

But the latest round of sanctions, the cancellation of visas and of all but a few foreign flights, has frightened the Haitian elite. A sign of their mounting paranoia is that the publication of the first list of MREs by the US embassy spawned two more supplementary lists. 'This is because everybody who was on the first list of coup supporters suspected some other Haitian of having denounced them,' explained a Haitian observer, 'so they all contacted the embassy to denounce whoever they thought had denounced them as an MRE. Hence the new lists.'

It is difficult to feel much sympathy for the Haitian elite. Many are genuinely astonished that anybody, especially the US ambassador should hold them responsible for the coup, or for the terror spread by the death squads. They warn of Marxist priests around Fr Aristide.

'Do you know that some of the priests close to him were trained in Belgium?' asked a businessman in a hushed voice, as if a Belgian seminary were the Comintern.

No doubt there are Haitians who feel that a return to 1791 is exactly what is needed. A radical priest said he asked his cook about an amnesty for Gen Cedras. She replied: 'Not until we have fried them all in oil in a pan.' But the poor have suffered more from the embargo than the rich. They live on bananas and bread fruit. For the moment at least, their thoughts are less on vengeance than on survival.

Nowhere to run, page 15

Peter Pringle, page 15

(Photograph omitted)