Crisis in Haiti: Two Hundred Years after Slaves Rose Up against France, Armed Rebels Oust Haiti's Elected Leader

Article excerpt

Haitians had expected 2004 to be a year of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of independence from France following the only successful slave revolt of its time. Instead political violence exploded early in the year and armed gunmen took over cities demanding President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resign. Just as the rebels prepared to move in on the capital, the international community, led by the United States and France, increased pressure on Aristide, saying he was not able to effectively run the country. Aristide resigned and left Haiti on February 29, 2004.

Roots of the crisis

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990 in Haiti's first free elections. In the 1980s, Aristide, then a priest, was a popular figure who led protests that helped bring an end to the 30-year Duvalier family dictatorship. As a priest, Aristide was considered a socialist and was despised by conservatives in the United States and by many of Haiti's economic elite. Yet more recently Aristide had acquired enemies from both the ideological right and left, including many of his former supporters, who said he and his family had amassed a fortune while in power.

After taking office in 1991, Aristide was overthrown eight months later in a military coup. He spent three years in exile, and appealed to the United Nations to intervene in the Haitian crisis. In 1994, the UN authorized a multinational force, headed by the United States, to restore Aristide to power. The United States sent 20,000 troops and remained in the country for five years. Aristide finished out the remainder of his term and, barred by Haiti's constitution from serving consecutive terms, he ceded power to his hand picked successor, Rene Preval. Aristide remained an extremely powerful figure during Preval's term. His Lavalas Family party--which has no official ideology but is populist in nature, organized around Aristide as its leader--won control of parliament in flawed legislative elections in May 2000. A report by the Organization of American States confirmed that the elections had been marred by irregularities. Subsequently, international donors suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. When Preval's five-year term was over, opposition members boycotted presidential elections to protest the fraudulent legislative elections. Aristide easily won re-election. In recent years, Aristide raised the minimum wage, a move favorable to his populist base, but unpopular among many in the business class. And, even as he and his supporters were accused of a range of abuses, Aristide's government pursued prosecution of former military officers and paramilitaries for human rights abuses. Since late last year, protesters increasingly called for Aristide to step down. They said he had used power to enrich himself, created armed gangs to intimidate opponents, and had not kept his promises to Haiti's majority poor.

The Opposition

There have been two relatively distinct oppositions to Aristide in Haiti. There is a democratic, non-violent opposition called the Democratic Platform, which is a coalition of various political parties and 184 civil society groups--dubbed Group 184, and led by businessman Andy Apaid (This coalition includes human rights groups, student groups, unions, and church groups, among others.). The political parties in the coalition are comprised of social democrats, Christian democrats, center-right and center-left groups. Separate from this opposition is a well-armed opposition that began taking control of Haiti's cities in February. This group, led by former police chief Guy Philippe, encompasses former soldiers from the Haitian army, which Aristide disbanded during his first term, former paramilitaries and former members of Aristide's gangs. Aristide and his supporters called the rebels "terrorists," and said the violence was an attempted coup d'etat. They also accuse the United States of backing the rebel insurrection. …