Haiti fears a repeat of the past as new rulers arrive

By Phil Davison in Port-au-Prince

03 March 2004


It is, as they say, déjà vu all over again. American troops in the presidential palace, their guns trained on the Haitian people. Army officers and troops back in their old headquarters across the road, the same building from which they once dispatched death squads and from which they came within minutes of facing down the American President, Bill Clinton, and 20,000 US troops in 1994.

The thousands of poor Haitians, many of them barefoot, who peered through the tall green railings of the palace yesterday, down the barrels of the US Marines' Humvee-mounted-machine-guns, are not yet quite sure what to think. The events of the past month happened so fast that they don't yet know what hit them.

Have they been liberated? Was this a popular rebellion, a foreign intervention or a coup d'état? Whatever it is, it sometimes looks as though it was all done with mirrors.

The two or three hundred "rebels" who spearheaded the military movement against Jean-Bertrand Aristide and were cheered by many in the capital on Monday, appeared almost to have vanished into thin air yesterday.

Had the Americans, widely thought here to have armed and supported them, now told them to keep quiet?

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made it clear on Monday that he considered some of the rebel leaders unsavoury and that he would not like to see them involved in governing this country.

But Guy Philippe, a rebel leader, was out in the open. From a hotel in the posh Petionville district high above the capital, said he would run the newly constituted army.

"I am the chief," he insisted, hastening to add, "... the military chief. I will answer to the President." Minutes later he said he would arrest the Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune.

As it turned out yesterday, many of the rebels were closeted inside the white-painted colonial-style former headquarters of the Haitian army, turned into government buildings by Mr Aristide when he disbanded the army with Washington's blessing in 1995.

They had locked themselves in, away from hundreds of curious passers-by, but the men we could see through the railings looked exactly like the men of the old Haitian army, the army of the Duvalier dictators, of the death squads, of the cocaine trafficking and of the 1991 coup that forced Mr
Aristide to flee first time
round. They had the same uniforms and, perhaps more frightening, the same dread-inspiring look.

Some of them had boasted on Monday that they were determined to root out Mr Aristide's chimères gunmen, who have now blended into the scenery of the city's seething slums. They did not beat around the bush. They wanted to execute such men on the spot. Staunch supporters of Aristide's Lavalas party have gone underground.

There was no sign yesterday of Louis-Jodel Chamblain, the rebel leader who was convicted of the massacre of 26 Aristide supporters in 1994 and was once linked with army death squads. Amnesty International is calling for his arrest.

So Haiti is about to have an army again, perhaps the last thing it needs. And now we hear that ousted dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier wants to come home. Am I dreaming all this?

It took only a couple of dozen US Marines to secure the grubby port yesterday, so far their only deployment outside the airport, the American embassy and the presidential palace.

They have not yet decided whether to go out on patrol, something George Bush may want to avoid after the Iraq experience. There is, though, no sign of any hostility to the American, French or Canadian troops now here at the forefront of what may become a peace force of 5,000.

But neither were the foreigners cheered. Haitians have seen it all before.

With the port secure, many Haitians asked whether President Bush would send what is more vital to them than new governments or foreign troops ­ food.

Regardless of his faults, and they were many, Aristide left this nation's starving masses one great legacy: the belief that they were worth something and that their votes counted. Whether that belief will be shattered during the next cycle of events remains to be seen.