Haiti: Rebels in Charge

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Guy Philippe, one of the rebel commanders, drives past the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince

Guy Philippe was a day late. The Haitian rebel army leader had promised he’d arrive in the capital, Port-au-Prince, on Sunday, February 29—his 36th birthday—to force President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office. But early that morning, Aristide—realizing that not only the international community but his own police forces had abandoned him—resigned and hopped on a plane to Africa where asylum awaited.

In the violent confusion that ensued, an advance guard of rebel troops emerged in the capital and partnered up with the Haitian police. In tandem, they patrolled Port-au-Prince’s neighborhoods and cleaned the streets of Aristide’s armed, angry thugs, the chimères, who for days had been terrorizing and murdering Haitian citizens in anticipation of a rebel assault. By Monday morning the joint rebel-police squads were finished, and Philippe rode triumphantly into Port-au-Prince in the back of a pickup as crowds chanted “Liberté!” “He is the second Toussaint L’Ouverture!” said fork-lift driver Andre Charles, 36, referring to the hero who won Haiti’s independence from France 200 years ago. “He delivered us!”

At least from the chimeres, but hardly from the host of other emergencies facing Haiti. The constitutionally selected interim President, Supreme Court chief Boniface Alexandre, isn’t even recognizable to most Haitians. And he hardly looked enthusiastic about taking charge of a nation, the hemisphere’s poorest, whose only real ruler for the moment is anarchy. The month-long crisis has claimed almost 100 lives, including more than 10 killed by the chimères (Creole for mythical monster) as they went on a revenge binge Sunday morning after Aristide’s departure, their bodies strewn about the capital.

Alexandre has reason to be ill at ease. Haiti’s political institutions, including the national parliament, have been switched off for months; the contingent of some 100 U.S. Marines flown in by President Bush Sunday night have been ordered only to guard key facilities, such as the Port-au-Prince airport and presidential palace, and national security consists of a few hundred guerrillas—along with a few thousand cops who belong to one of the Caribbean’s most threadbare police forces. “This is not the way things were supposed to be once we were rid of Aristide,” said businessman Jean Robert, 57, as he helped clean up the police station looted by mobs in the capital’s Petion Ville district. “I could go back and live in the U.S., but I’m staying, because we’ve got to change the way things are done here.”

Meanwhile, Aristide has become widely reviled as a corrupt autocrat (after once being revered as the hope of Haiti’s poor); still, his supporters in Haiti and the U.S. were challenging how his exit was done and rumors quickly spread that the failed leader perhaps did not leave under his own volition. Did he resign, or was he, as he began insisting Monday from the Central African Republic, abducted by his foes and forced to leave the island?

The Bush Administration, which insists it negotiated the voluntary departure of Aristide—Haiti’s first ever democratically elected President—denied that he’d been coerced. But it was just one more anxious question looming over Haiti’s 8 million beleaguered people. The most important is: What kind of government will now rise from the still-smoking street barricades and blood-stained sidewalks?

Mainstream political opposition leaders like Evans Paul, who is co-authoring a still-unfinished transition scheme called the Platform Democratique, promised a fresh democracy. “We are committed to never again returning to a dictatorship in Haiti,” Paul insisted. “We will show the world we can build a different Haiti.”

The most immediate item may be a special presidential election. But Paul and his colleagues, like Alexandre, enjoy none of the street adulation being showered right now on martial figures like Philippe, a former army and police officer who fled Haiti in 2000 under suspicions of ties to drug trafficking—and who wants to recreate the military that Aristide dismantled in 1995 during his first presidency.

In an interview with TIME last week, Philippe insisted, “I am not fighting for personal political power.” At the same time, he promised that if Aristide resigned, his army would lay down their arms, but on Monday, at least, it was apparent they had no such intention. And that’s a stark reminder that before any new democratic process in Haiti moves forward, deals will most likely first have to be struck with the armed powers that actually pushed Aristide out. In the end, said Andre Apaid, another opposition leader, Philippe and the rebels have “distorted” Haiti’s path back to institutional rule.

U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley warned the rebels that “their credibility is entirely on the line” if they ignore their pledge to disarm. His concern is widely shared: A wide swath of the rebel army has links to some of the most brutal military abuses of Haiti’s recent past, including massacres of civilians committed during the three-year army dictatorship that aborted Aristide’s first presidency in 1991, until a U.S. intervention restored Aristide to power in 1994.

This week marks the fourth time since 1915 that U.S. Marines have been dispatched to Haiti. But as long as they have no mandate to protect Haiti’s streets—and with a U.N.-led international peacekeeping force still on the drawing board—the rebel-police partnership is the only thing keeping the dreaded chimeres from coming out of the woodwork again.

That, say most Haitians and even U.S. officials like Foley, makes it all the more incumbent on the U.S. and international community to do a far more thorough job of institution-building in Haiti than they did a decade ago. When Prime Minister Yvon Neptune (a staunch Aristide ally) presented Alexandre to the press hours after Aristide’s farewell, they were both accompanied by Foley—a strong indication that the ambassador may now be America’s de facto pro consul now in Haiti. “I think it’s very clear that the efforts made 10 years ago did not yield the intended results,” said Foley. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that experience.” And a dire need to apply them right this time.