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World Perspective | HAITI

As Leaders Call for Peace, Nation Buzzes With Talk of a Civil War

Disputed elections, rising crime and blackouts leave citizens polarized on democratic anniversary.

March 30, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marked his 50th day in power with a nationwide call for peace, the talk on the anarchic streets of this impoverished capital Thursday was of the prospects for civil war.

Members of Aristide's Lavalas Family party marched through downtown with a coffin meant for the opposition's self-declared "parallel president," Gerard Gourgue. He remained in hiding, stunned by a week of opposition clashes with pro-Aristide demonstrators who have demanded his arrest. The violence left several people dead and dozens injured.

Other opposition leaders emerged from safe houses to condemn Aristide and were met with supporters' cries of "We want bullets!" The leaders spoke from the walled compound of their 15-party Democratic Convergence, which had been besieged by Lavalas supporters after the alliance launched a nationwide mobilization against the government last week.

The violent rhetoric came, ironically, on a day commemorating the 14th anniversary of a democratic watershed for the country: the signing of its constitution.

"Aristide is talking about peace," opposition politician Alexis Clerius declared through a megaphone, amid a weeklong nationwide power outage. "But he's preparing for war."

At a larger government rally across town, several ruling party militants echoed that tone, with shouts of "Aristide or death!"

"There is a very real possibility of civil war," said Serge Gilles, a former opposition senator, "because right now, the country is terribly polarized."

In fact, nearly two months into Aristide's second presidential term--and nearly seven years after the U.S. sent 20,000 troops to the country to restore him to power--Haiti's future seems as bleak as ever.

The political opposition, backed largely by Haiti's landed, wealthy elite, refuses to accept the results of last year's legislative and presidential polls. Those elections, which the U.S., the European Union and the Organization of American States also criticized as unfair, gave Aristide and his populist party of the poor a lock on federal and local power.

In the aftermath of the elections, hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed international aid remains frozen. And despite Aristide's mandate and near-absolute power, the problems plaguing the poorest nation in the Americas have only worsened since his February inauguration.

Violent crime is up: In the last week alone, a U.S. missionary, a French citizen and a Haitian Red Cross worker were killed, all during apparent robbery attempts. And earlier this month, three Molotov cocktails were lobbed near the home of the U.S. Embassy's spokesman here.

Investment is down: Foreign businesses are staying away, and Haitians are holding back expansion plans until the political drama in the streets plays itself out.

And the nation is in the dark, the result of its oil suppliers' demand that Haiti pay for fuel in cash, the government confirmed this week.

As the country marked its constitutional anniversary in rallies that ended peacefully, there were only the faintest rays of hope: Aristide's small army of supporters unveiled new yellow T-shirts that declare, "We have to get along."

In a radio message, the 75-year-old Gourgue called for national reconciliation and an end to the bloodshed. And opposition leader Gilles said that "it's still possible" to resolve differences with Aristide "if Lavalas engages in real negotiations."

Clearly, however, the overwhelming majority of Haitians were far more preoccupied with survival Thursday.

"Right now, I'm just taking care of my own business," said Jocelyne Lindor, a 38-year-old street vendor outside the pro-Aristide rally.

"Do I have hope for the future? No. None at all. Only God can make things better in Haiti now."

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