Q&A: A Dangerous Vacuum Grows in Haiti

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U.S. Marines have been sent in to secure the American embassy in Port au-Prince as Haiti braces for a bloodbath. A rag-tag rebel militia on Monday overran the country's second city, Cap Haitien, and vowed to press on to the capital in order to unseat President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide, who was restored to power by U.S. military intervention in 1994 following a coup remains the country's elected president, but opposition groups point to electoral fraud in the 2000 parliamentary election to argue that he has no legitimacy nor any intent to submit to the will of the electorate. Haiti's tiny police force is no match for the rebels, some of are veterans of the old army disbanded by Aristide in 1994, and who now control half of the country. Mounting chaos and the threat of a bloodbath have increased pressure on U.S. to take action, but thus far the Bush administration has confined its efforts to the diplomatic front. TIME's Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett, who is covering the Haitian crisis, picks up the story in conversation with Time.com:

TIME.com: A U.S. diplomatic mission to broker a cease-fire appears to have failed, after its compromise proposal — for President Aristide to share power with an opposition prime minister pending new elections — was accepted by Aristide but rejected by the opposition. Who are these opposition groups, and why have they rejected the power-sharing plan?

Tim Padgett: There are two main political opposition groups. The Democratic Convergence is composed mostly of former allies of President Aristide who have become disgusted by what they call his authoritarian, incompetent, even mystical style of governing. This group was particularly outraged at the electoral fraud perpetrated during the parliamentary elections of 2000 — a problem Aristide has been dragging his feet over addressing. The second grouping, which calls itself the Group of 184, represents more of Haiti's business community who are also fed up with the situation under Aristide. Both groups say they're not aligned with the armed rebels, but they share the same principal demand, which is for Aristide to stand down. And the reason the political opposition has not accepted the U.S.-brokered accord is precisely because it leaves Aristide in power.

TIME: What else do they stand for besides ousting Aristide?

Padgett: Both groups have come together specifically under the call for Aristide to stand down. You might say that the Convergence represents an exasperation of a wide section of Haiti's political spectrum over how the country has been governed, while the Group of 184 represents the exasperation of the business community over the economic disaster that has befallen Haiti on Aristide's watch. Both groups have distanced themselves from the rebels. In fact, the more territory the rebels win, the more irrelevant the political opposition begins to look. And that's a real problem for the country.

TIME: So who are the armed rebels?

Padgett: Some of them may be what you could term Aristide's Frankensteins. Instead of relying on the actual police force in Haiti, Aristide tended to promote armed groups out in the streets to defend his government from its enemies. And that strategy is in many ways backfiring on him. Guy Phillipe, the most visible figure in the rebel front, used to be a police honcho. But other key figures, such as Louis Jodel Chamblain, are veterans of Fraph, a paramilitary organization created during the anti-Aristide military coup of 1991 (reversed in 1994 by U.S. intervention), whose function was to terrorize those sections of the population supporting Aristide. It's far from clear how extensive the rebels' organization is, and even what the political agenda of their leaders may be.

TIME: Is there a criminal dimension to these rebel groups?

Padgett: Guy Phillipe certainly has a checkered past. He has tried to lead coups before. Even some of the political opposition leaders are under suspicion. Danny Toussaint, for example, a former senator and Aristide ally who has since turned against the president, is barred from entering the U.S. as a suspect in a murder case in Haiti, and has been accused by U.S. officials of involvement in narco-trafficking.

The U.S. did a less than complete job of building the new national police force in Haiti after it intervened to restore Aristide to power in 1994, and we're seeing the results of that right now in the ease with which the rebels have swept aside central authority. But the fact that the police force is so threadbare is also a reason Haiti today is the main Caribbean transshipment point for the Colombian drug cartels.

All sides of the political equation in Haiti appear to have become intertwined with crime. That's why the question of what comes after Aristide is very scary: The political opposition seems rather weak now in comparison to the rebels. If Aristide does step down or falls, there will be a power vacuum and right now it looks like that vacuum could be filled by people with rather nefarious connections.

TIME: Surely the threat of anarchy breaking out raises pressure on the political opposition to accept a compromise?

Padgett: That question has to be weighing heavily on the minds of opposition leaders. They have two choices: They could continue to reject the peace accord, assuming that the rebels will take over and achieve the basic objective of the political opposition which is to hasten Aristide's departure. But if they wait for the rebels to take over, then when Aristide goes their own hand will be weak because the rebels will be running the show. So, their other choice is to accept the peace proposal laid out by the U.S. delegation, hoping that this could blunt rebel advance. But it could also generate rebel anger against the opposition, too. So the political opposition is between a rock and a hard place right now. Either they hurt their standing with the international community by resisting the peace accord, or they hurt their standing with the rebels by accepting it.

TIME: Is there pressure on the U.S. to expand its commitment from the 50 Marines sent to secure the embassy?

Padgett: Aristide has so little credibility with his neighbors or the Bush administration that the U.S. is going to be very loathe to save him as they did in 1994. The Bush administration has not hidden its animosity for Aristide — it has held back a half-billion dollars in international aid since 2000 to pressure Aristide to conduct democratic elections. And Haiti is a desperately poor country. So it's pretty obvious that the Bush administration is not going to stick its neck out for Aristide. But the problem is that what comes after Aristide may turn out to be an even worse headache for the U.S.

TIME: So is the spiral down into a bloodbath now unavoidable?

Padgett: Although Aristide's failure to deliver on any of his promises has prompted even many of the poorest Haitians to abandon the man they once affectionately called "Titid," he still has a lot of support in the capital, Port au Prince. There's some question about how much of this is legitimate support and how much is expressed by armed groups in the pay of the government. But it's pretty clear that when and if the rebels advance on the capital, it's going to get ugly. It won't be nearly as easy for them as capturing Cap Haitien and other towns, where they simply attacked the police station and put the police to flight, and could then claim they were in charge.

The U.S. appears to have decided that there's not much it can do either way to prevent the violence that's coming, given the political inertia in Haiti. If the U.S. did intervene, of course, the rebels might back off. But there's no sign that's going to come.