The chalkboard inside the tin-roof schoolhouse bears the remnants of a science lesson from six months ago. But the man at the head of the class is interested in a different kind of chemistry.
Gang leader Buter Metayer commands the Cannibal Army created four years ago by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to menace his political opponents. Now, Metayer has turned the Haitian president’s guns on the government. The cocky commander stands at the front of the classroom and lays out his plans for marching on Cap Haitien and the capital, Port-au-Prince, to expand his armed rebel stronghold into an independent republic.
From the squalid slums of Port-au-Prince to the sumptuous gardens of Petionville to the smoldering streets of Gonaives now strewn with the detritus of the Cannibal Army’s deadly rampage, Haitians are ever more willing to come forward and denounce Aristide as an autocrat who betrayed their hopes for an end to two centuries of oppression.
Beyond the shared hatred of a man once revered as Haiti’s hope for democracy, there is little in common among the diverse factions demanding that Aristide step down. They are united by their conviction that nothing will change for the better until he’s gone.
Opposition to the bespectacled, mild-mannered president has consumed Gonaives in the five months since the mutilated corpse of Metayer’s brother Amiot was found on a nearby roadside. And it intensified in every corner of the country as last year’s deadline for national elections passed, the Parliament ceased to function and protests against the government’s human rights abuses marred New Year’s Day celebrations of Haiti’s bicentennial of independence from slavery and colonial occupation.
The loss of popular support for Aristide two years before the end of his second and last term as president is most visible here because of the bloody reaction to Aristide’s move against the gang he helped create. Buter Metayer’s turncoat criminals, who openly confess their role in Haiti’s drug trade, are what Aristide now calls “the armed wing of the opposition,” equating the violent rebels here with the businesspeople, professionals, students and artists who have been campaigning for the president’s resignation to allow a fresh start in healing this desperately poor and damaged nation.
Short-lived revolts in a dozen other towns and cities also exposed the hair-trigger emotions of people fed up with poverty, disease and a seemingly bottomless downward spiral, but those outbursts -- more aimed at looting than ruling -- fizzled as soon as the booty ran out.
The gunmen now bragging of an imminent assault on Cap Haitien and eventually Port-au-Prince remain a ragtag faction, and their message that the time for patience is over has mostly fallen on deaf ears.
“We freed Gonaives, and there have been no riots since then. This shows that we can free the country with the support of the people,” 33-year-old Metayer, in wraparound shades and a black leather safari hat, said from his lair miles behind the flaming barricades staffed by his gunmen at the edge of the rubble-strewn city.
Gonaives is an especially virulent concoction of enmity, misery and fear, but hot spots are palpable even in places still loyal to Aristide, such as the Democracy Village and La Saline slums along the capital’s garbage-mounded shores where squatters acknowledge that their wretched state serves as evidence that the Aristide government has failed them.
“The president has done nothing. Things just go from bad to worse. Only God can help us now,” said Micheline Joseph, struggling ever harder to feed her five children from the meager proceeds of a hawker’s basket bearing plantain chips, gum and a few battered mangoes.
In a cement cell once used as a torture chamber before Aristide turned over Fort Dimanche prison to the homeless and renamed it Democracy Village, 19-year-old Lelene Michel doesn’t know who’s responsible for the epidemic of hunger that has already killed two of her four children. Like most slum dwellers, she is intimidated into reciting pro-Aristide slogans when surrounded by young toughs who serve as the president’s spontaneous enforcers. But she shows neither conviction nor even understanding of the complex political stalemate paralyzing the country, never mind an idea of how to break it.
In the alleys traversing the erstwhile prison’s grounds, cluttered with cinderblock hovels and open sewers, Dorilus Lorvecie likewise pays lip service to supporting Aristide, then launches into a lament about the intensifying misery that has beset her under his administration.
“I used to be able to make a little money, but now the country is blocked because the bourgeois people don’t like Aristide,” said the 29-year-old who sells plates of spaghetti and catsup for 5 gourdes, about 13 cents -- but not enough to pay for school tuition for any of her six children. She also blames the bourgeois -- Aristide’s codeword for the wealthy elite he casts as capitalist exploiters -- for the president’s failure to deliver on a 14-year-old promise to make education free.
In Petionville, a few miles south of the capital and home to both shantytowns and elegant villas, political strategists such as Evans Paul and Mischa Gaillard optimistically extol their vision of a new Haiti to take shape once Aristide steps down.
“We cannot achieve a democratic transition with him. He has proved himself incapable of this,” said Gaillard, a professor and civil-society activist, waving a copy of the mainstream opposition’s united strategy for wresting this nation from its political and economic gridlock.
Called the Democratic Platform, the plan lays out one form of transitional government that would rule for two years until a new government can be elected.
Intellectuals such as novelist Lyonel Trouillot argue that Haitians are impatient for change and committed to building democracy this time around.
“Most Haitians agree now that this society has created monsters like the Duvaliers and Jean-Bertrand Aristide because we’re a society built on exclusion,” said the writer active in a coalition of artists and cultural figures, most of whom have received repeated death threats for turning on the president they once supported. “Now people are ready to go beyond the question of color, beyond the question of origin, whether you’re from the city or the countryside.... This country is going straight toward civil war otherwise, just like we’re seeing in Gonaives.”
Trouillot, Gaillard and other leaders of opposition alliances warn that the international community’s indifference may plunge the area into unpredictable bloodshed.
They recoil at Aristide’s apparent success in telling Washington and the Organization of American States what the would-be intermediaries want to hear, that nothing can or should be done to intervene in a domestic crisis.
Aristide’s political challengers implore the United States and Caribbean neighbors to recognize that the president has irrevocably lost the faith of his nation and to encourage his exile to avert a bloody civil war of the type the Gonaives gang is fomenting.
“The international community so far is a big part of the problem and none of the solution,” said Trouillot, pointing to a joint declaration issued by the U.S. State Department, the OAS and the 15-nation Caribbean Community on Friday. It served to dismiss opposition claims that Aristide’s presidency was illegitimate because he had failed to fulfill conditions set out in earlier mediation efforts.
The declaration also appealed to the political opposition to avoid violence in its demonstrations, while making no mention of the gunfire and rock-throwing aimed at Aristide opponents a day earlier.
The Port-au-Prince groups canceled their Thursday protest march, announcing another attempt to air their grievances today.
Illiterate and glassy-eyed from the narcotics with which he is paid for his disruptive services, Brevil St. Victor acknowledges that Aristide “has done nothing for us.” He takes part in the attacks on Aristide opponents, the 26-year-old said, to prevent them from driving the president from office. At the same time, however, he dismissed the brutality as the only occupation available from the ruling Lavalas Party patrons.
“We will go out Sunday more than ever!” he vowed.