Haiti Progres

As Haiti’s Contras Launch Major Offensive:
Washington Suggests Aristide’s Removal 

Haiti’s “armed opposition” launched its most lethal offensive yet last week, creating the civil strife that many suspect Washington seeks to justify foreign military intervention in the country. On Feb. 10, State Department officials gave their first public hints that they would favor President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s resignation.

CARICOM representatives are flying to Washington this week to meet with Bush administration officials about the crisis in Haiti. A State Department official contacted by Haïti Progrès Feb. 10 would not comment on whether Aristide’s removal was on the meeting’s agenda. He would only repeat that “President Aristide is the democratically elected leader of his country.”

Meanwhile, in one of the largest mobilizations in recent years, hundreds of thousands of Haitians marched and rallied in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 7, the anniversary of the 1986 fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, to demand that Aristide fulfill his five-year term, which ends Feb. 6, 2006. Thousands more held similar anti-coup demonstrations in provincial cities. Pro-government popular organizations have begun setting up barricades and taking up arms in the capital and other cities like Jacmel, Cayes and Cap Haïtien to prevent the spread of the armed opposition’s attacks.

The offensive began on the morning of Feb. 5 when the newly constituted Front of Revolutionary Resistance of Gonaïves (FRRG) attacked that city’s police headquarters with automatic weapons fire and grenades. Many civilians and several policemen were killed in the five-hour gun battle that ensued, although it is not clear how many from numerous conflicting reports. Eventually the police withdrew. The attackers overran the station and freed all the prisoners in jail, “among them lots of criminals whom courts had convicted,” said a Feb. 7 police communiqué. “They looted, burned vehicles, burned the homes of several citizens... and then burned down the police headquarters.” The rebels also burned down the hotel and home of former Gonaïves mayor Stephen Topa Moïse as well as the offices of the Artibonite Department’s government representatives, called delegates. 

Leaders of the FRRG include Jean “Tatoune” Pierre, who was convicted and jailed for his role in the April 1994 Raboteau massacre but freed in an Aug. 2002 prison break (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 20, No. 21, Aug. 7, 2002 ); Butteur Métayer, who alighted in Gonaïves from Miami last September after the mysterious murder of his brother, a pro-Aristide popular organization leader (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 21, No. 29, Oct. 1, 2003 ); and Winter Etienne, the former government-appointed director of the Gonaïves hospital and a member of the Open Gate Party (PLB).

The next day, armed men from the opposition-aligned organization RAMICOS attacked the police station 25 miles south of Gonaïves in the town of St. Marc, which also straddles the strategic main artery to Haiti’s north. They also looted and burned the customs house and some containers. The police rapidly retreated, apparently in cahoots with the attackers, for whom they left behind all the station’s weapons and ammunition. One of the station’s commanders, a former Haitian army soldier, is known to be close to fellow former soldier and rising opposition leader, Dany Toussaint, who recently defected from Aristide’s Lavalas Family party (FL).

Police complicity appears to have been involved in at least a few of the other town takeovers by the opposition. While reports are conflicting, the armed opposition appears to have, at least briefly, controlled about ten smaller towns, among them Trou du Nord, Saint-Raphaël, Dondon, Marchand-Dessalines, Ennery, Gros-Morne, L’Estère, Anse-Rouge, Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, as well as Grand Goâve in the south. In many cases, public buildings and the homes of government officials or supporters were burned or looted. Reports of these takeovers, however real or brief, provided fuel for the panic which opposition controlled radio stations, and consequently their corporate media information dependents, have sought to spread.

Both the Haitian bourgeoisie’s and foreign corporate media reports have sought to project the image that the Haitian government is tottering, part of the psychological preparation which usually has preceded engineered interventions or coups in past decades throughout Latin America.

However, the watchword heard around Haiti this past week was “Nou pap mawòn ankò,” meaning we won’t go into hiding again, a reference to the bloody 1991-1994 coup which killed over 5000 Haitians. “There is a big difference between the political opposition, which we respect, and the terrorist opposition, which we must overpower so that they don’t spill blood and sow sorrow again in the country,” Aristide declared Feb. 7 to the multitudes which greeted him in the capital’s seaside slum of Cité Soleil, in just one of the speeches he made that day. “The dew dances until the sun rises,” he said, using a Creole proverb to declare that the Haitian people were now waking up to the danger of a coup. 

Indeed the population seems to have responded enthusiastically to Prime Minister Yvon Neptune’s call on Feb. 8 for the Haitian people to assist the police in beating back “the armed branch of the opposition.” On Feb. 8, popular organizations militants, some armed, threw up barricades in the capital’s Canapé Vert and Carrefour neighborhoods; shortly afterwards, the opposition postponed its announced march until Feb. 12. Opposition marches have often been provocative and violent.

The opposition also threatened to takeover the southern city of Jacmel, prompting people to take to the streets there with demonstrations and barricades.

The police attempted to take back control of Gonaïves on Feb. 7. According to the opposition, they were ambushed and suffered some 14 dead. According to Neptune, a heavily-armed police unit took back control of the town but then the insurgents attacked the police station “using the people from the town’s population as a shield. To prevent a bloodbath, the police stopped the operation and retreated.” The police suffered several wounded and one fatality from the SWAT unit, an officer named Douckens Guistinvil, according to a “provisional” police report.

Associated Press photographs widely circulated on the Internet show the body of an unidentified SWAT policeman being dragged through the streets on Feb. 7. In another, a woman is cutting an ear off the corpse.

With support from the local populations, police succeeded in retaking St. Marc, Grand Goâve and Dondon on Feb. 9. Neptune flew by helicopter to both St. Marc and Grand Goâve where he was greeted by cheering throngs of government supporters.

On Feb. 10, popular organizations took up positions around the northern city of Cap Haïtien to prevent rebel attacks there. On Feb. 7, they burned down the local relay of Radio Vision 2000, a powerful USAID-spawned powerful opposition-aligned station. On Feb. 8, barricades went up at the city’s bottleneck entrance, and gunfire crackled during the day and night in its outlying suburbs. The armed opposition, in particular Dominican Republic-based former police chief Guy Philippe, has made no secret of their plans to capture Cap, Haiti’s second largest city. Presently cut off from the capital at Gonaïves, the city, UN aid workers are warning, faces a possible food crisis. Gas supplies have already dwindled.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher gave the first inkling that the Bush administration is preparing the ground for Aristide’s unconstitutional removal. “[W]e recognize that reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed and how the security situation is maintained,” Boucher coyly responded when asked if Washington thought the elected president should remain in office until the end of his term.

Reuters also reported that a “senior State Department official said proposals for a resolution were under discussion which could involve Aristide’s departure from office, although he did not specify who was making the proposals.” The unnamed official then told Reuters: “It’s clear from the kind of proposals that have been made and the discussions that are being held that when we talk about undergoing change in the way Haiti is governed, I think that could indeed involve changes in Aristide’s position.”

On Jan. 30, the State Department authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency personnel and their families from the U.S. embassy in Haiti and issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens to “defer travel to Haiti” and, those already in Haiti, “to consider departing the country.”

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) excoriated Washington for its hypocrisy in a Feb. 10 press memorandum. “Rather than demanding that the opposition immediately choose its representatives to the Provisional Electoral Council and end its cat-and-mouse game aimed at sabotaging any prospect of parliamentary elections (which the opposition almost certainly would lose), Washington is unable to hide its pro-opposition bias, even though it cannot be seen as backing the overthrow of a democratically-elected president,” the note said. “Given the rebels’ ideological and financial ties to the U.S. — they are generously funded by U.S. taxpayers through the International Republican Institute —Washington’s open denouncement of their obstructionism could have an electrifying positive effect. Yet, this has not been forthcoming, partly because U.S. hemispheric policy is guided by a small group of extremists with strong ideological ties to former Senator Jesse Helms, who simplistically see Aristide as the Caribbean’s next Castro.”

Given its broad, if grudging, popular support, the government is unlikely to be overthrown by the rebels themselves. Foreign muscle may be needed for that.

An opposition spokesman denied backing the armed opposition’s violence but called for foreign intervention to avert civil war, according to the BBC. “For a long time, we have been warning the government that this is where they wanted to bring the situation,” said Ben Dupuy, secretary general of the National Popular Party (PPN), one of the government’s leftist allies. “Washington along with the traditional ruling classes have been strangling and destablilizing Haiti to create the conditions so they can cry ‘anarchy’ and justify yet another military intervention. This was the excuse in 1915, and they want to use it again today.”

U.S. troops, however, are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, Dupuy explained, so they might resort to a proxy force. “The Dominican Army works closely with the Pentagon, by which it has recently been rearmed,” he said. “Or perhaps they’ll try to orchestrate a CARICOM force or some other combination.”

In any such scenario, the armed opposition or foreign troops would face a very hostile reception from an armed and angry Haitian people. “With President Aristide, the people began a real revolution,” said Pierre Antoine Lovinsky, head of the September 30 Foundation which champions victims of the 1991 coup. “And that revolution will not go backwards. The people will prove that.”