Peter Katel in Haiti: Army Said Aristide “Would Be Killed”

Haiti: Newsweek – October 21, 1991 -page 48
October 21, 1991 | Newsweek | PETER KATEL | Page 48

Uzis and assault rifles slung at their sides, the ti soldats (little soldiers) of Haiti’s Army swaggered through the ballroom of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince last week, helping themselves to champagne and whisky. At one end of the room, an obscure judge named Joseph Nerette accepted congratulations from the politicians who under military pressure installed him as provisional president to preempt a return by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It was as if the Army owned the place. They did. “Aristide will not come back,” said Maj. Joseph Michel Frangois, Haiti’s new police chief. “He would be killed.”

Those threats should be taken seriously. Since the Sept. 29 coup, Frangois has been the closest thing to a real authority in Haiti. Last week his men chased Organization of American States foreign ministers out of the country at gunpoint. His men stormed the National Assembly to scare the legislators out of allowing Aristide back. They kept an iron grip on Port-au-Prince’s slums, where at least 350 people have been killed since the coup. Haitian Sen. Guy Beauduy says soldiers kill out of “panic” at the hatred they encounter among the impoverished Haitians who made Aristide the country’s most freely elected president.

Outside forces are still trying to squeeze the military. Last week the Organization of American States approved a voluntary hemispheric embargo on Haiti that might quickly deprive the island of the cheap oil it currently receives from Venezuela. The United States moved to show its displeasure with the recent turn of events by freezing Haitian U.S. bank accounts. Eventually, the OAS wants to send in civilian peacekeepers guarded by their own security force to observe Aristide’s safe return-a deal they almost closed last week until Frangois’s men interrupted an airport meeting between Army chief Brig. Gen. Raoul Cedras and an OAS delegation.

A prolonged embargo would condemn Haiti to starvation: almost all of its food is imported, and already the average Haitian lives on 70 percent of the normal American daily caloric intake says one Port-au-Prince diplomatic source. The 7,000 or so ti soldats won’t suffer, though. In Petionville, a wealthy suburb overlooking steamy Port-au-Prince from cool mountain heights, residents speak of handing out $10 bills and food to soldiers who pulled off the coup. “I gave my Jeep Cherokee,” said a matron from one of Haiti’s richest families, speaking on condition she not be named. “Everybody has to pitch in.” Only Haiti’s fledgling industrial sector dissents: a trade embargo would cripple the 140 assembly plants that turn out clothes and electronic components from imported materials.

From abroad, Aristide is calling for peaceful resistance. But he is having a hard time getting the message out: the soldiers have silenced most radio news. Pressure from the United States and other OAS members might be able to force Aristide’s return. But if he returns, it will be to a state of near civil war. Whether he would be able to reconcile the mutually terrified poor majority and wealthy minority of his country is as uncertain as his chances of simply staying alive.

Copyright © 1991, 2005 Newsweek, Inc.