Letter From Haiti: A Battle of Cannibals And Monsters

Aristide's opponents turn to violence, and his supporters answer in kind

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The tomb of Haitian strongman Amiot Metayer, who was murdered in September, can be found in the middle of a seaside slum in the city of Gonaives. His bust sits prominently under a white awning, accompanied by a photo of Metayer's cadaver with his eyes poked out. His heart had also been removed. The grave is surrounded by offerings of candles, a bottle of orange soda, a picture of the Virgin Mary and a bottle of rum. These days in Gonaives, Metayer's mourners have been making another kind of tribute to his memory: hunting down officials of the government, which they blame for Metayer's murder--in one case cutting off a policeman's ear.

Metayer's cohort, then called the Cannibal Army, was once said to lend its grim services to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Today it makes up the most violent component of a growing opposition that threatens to destabilize Haiti. Now dubbed the Artibonite Resistance Front, the group took control of Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest city, a week ago by attacking the main police station. All that remains of it and the adjacent prison is a few concrete walls.

The Front's success in Gonaives inspired uprisings in other cities. More than a dozen Haitians have died in the recent violence. Though most of the rebellions were put down by the police--Haiti has no military--the insurgents are undeterred. Front spokesman Winter Etienne says the group has men situated in two other key cities, Cap-Haitien and St. Marc. "We plan to take control of the north by the end of the month. Then we'll create the recipe to liberate Port-au-Prince."

The course of the Front's relations with Aristide demonstrates the complex character of Haiti's leader. Chosen in a 1990 landslide as the first leader of Haiti freely elected by its citizens, the charismatic former priest was deposed soon after in a military coup and then restored to power in 1994 through a U.S.led armed intervention. Aristide quickly disappointed many of his supporters by behaving like an autocrat; he was accused of arming gangs like the Cannibals that attacked his opponents. After flawed parliamentary elections in 2000, donor countries began cutting off much needed aid. Under international pressure to rein in the likes of Metayer, Aristide promised to do so. Soon afterward, Metayer was found murdered.

While the Front, now led by Amiot's brother Butteur, is motivated largely by revenge, the two other main players in the anti-Aristide camp say they oppose the President for his undemocratic ways and for driving the country deeper into poverty. Convergence, a group of political leaders, and the Group of 184, which represents businesspeople and human-rights groups, have distanced themselves from the bloody means of the Front. "We do not want violence," says 184 leader Andrew Apaid Jr., a wealthy businessman. "But we support the stand that Aristide must leave."

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