Two weeks of rampage and intimidation by gun-toting street gangs came to a head Friday, the 10th anniversary of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return from U.S. exile, as the gunmen blocked U.N. food deliveries to flooding victims and fired on police.
Shots rang out from apartment windows in the downtown Bel Air slum, a longtime Aristide stronghold, when police patrols entered in the late afternoon to clear smoldering barricades from streets eerily devoid of vehicles and throngs of insistent vendors. In a shift from the pro-Aristide demonstrations that had menaced the capital in recent days, the gangsters stayed in the shadows.
Further delaying food shipments to hungry victims of Tropical Storm Jeanne was a one-day national strike by business owners to protest what they termed a campaign of terror by gunmen loyal to Aristide. All schools, shops, public transport and even government offices shut down as frightened Haitians seized the chance to avoid confrontations with the gangs.
United Nations officials and exasperated relief workers striving to deliver food criticized the strike as capitulation to a few hundred hired thugs who they said were waging a campaign for Aristide’s return from exile in South Africa.
“It’s a holiday of fear,” said Myrna Domit, a spokeswoman for the U.N. peacekeeping force.
A day earlier, U.N. forces used tanks and armored vehicles to escort port workers past the gunmen trying to thwart the unloading and delivery of food for 300,000 homeless victims of the Sept. 19 storm that killed nearly 3,000.
About 120 containers of food remained stranded at the port because the gangs threatened stevedores and customs workers, warning them not to cooperate with the U.N. mission or the interim government that replaced Aristide.
Meanwhile, a man whom Haitian media described as an Aristide ally was arrested Thursday at the capital’s Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport carrying $800,000 in cash. Radio Metropole and other independent commentators speculated that it was money Aristide and his associates took when they fled Feb. 29 and that they had sent it back to pay off the slum gangs for the disruptions.
Nearly 50 people have died in the two weeks since the armed groups began attacking the interim government’s fledgling police forces and paralyzing disaster relief efforts. At least five victims, including three police officers, have been beheaded, and U.N. officials say gunmen have referred to their actions as “Operation Baghdad” -- borrowing the tactics of Iraqi insurgents who also are trying to undermine a U.S.-backed government.
The U.S. Embassy closed Friday as a precaution against the expected violence on the anniversary of Aristide’s tumultuous 1994 return with the assistance of 20,000 U.S. troops. The State Department, now accused by Aristide of driving him and his populist regime out of power eight months ago, has advised U.S. citizens to leave Haiti and authorized the departure of all but essential diplomatic personnel.
Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, named in March to head an interim government until free elections can be organized by the end of 2005, has met with broad and intensifying criticism as security conditions deteriorate. Business leaders, in a letter from the Haitian Chamber of Commerce, have accused him of doing too little to protect the population and economy from pro-Aristide gangs.
U.N. officials contend that Latortue has been heavy-handed in his arrests of figures from Aristide’s Lavalas Party. Meanwhile, armed rebels who drove the former president into exile have regrouped just outside the capital and announced their readiness to wipe out the gangs if Latortue gives the word.
“We have enough guns and ammunition. As soon as the government indicates, we will go down and take out the chimeres,” said Remissainthe Ravix, a major in the former Haitian army that Aristide disbanded a decade ago for its part in his 1991 ouster. He referred to the gangs by the French and Creole word for a mythical monster.
Guy Philippe, the ex-soldier who led the rebellion, also said he was waiting for government instructions.
Latortue kept a low profile Friday after his appeal for calm and compromise in a radio address a day earlier instigated angry denunciations by politicians and commentators who wanted tougher action taken against Aristide loyalists.
The street gangs have taken aim at the humanitarian relief efforts, presumably to discredit Latortue and handcuff the U.N. peacekeeping force. The Brazilian commander of the force has refused to involve his troops in efforts to disarm either pro-Aristide gunmen or pro-government rebels.
In addition to the stranded containers of food aid -- and the 300 more on the way -- an emergency air delivery of high-protein biscuits bound for Gonaives flood victims was blocked Friday by barricades gunmen put up on the airport road, said Guy Gauvreau, head of the World Food Program in Haiti.
At the port entrance, a few armed guards braced behind iron gates for another outbreak of sniping that has kept most workers at bay. Sporadic gunfire crackled in neighboring slums, and surly youths loitered across from the gates or buzzed by on motorbikes.
“Everyone is afraid. It’s getting like it was before Aristide left,” said Claude Simon, a dockworker who walked to the idled port hoping that offloading would resume, along with his salary.
With fewer than half of the promised 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers deployed and Haiti’s 2,500 police still poorly armed and trained, this poorest of Western nations is sliding back into the chaos and violence that engulfed it before Aristide fled.
Police Wednesday arrested a radical priest and Aristide ally, the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, accusing him of organizing gang leaders for the latest episode in Haiti’s 200-year history of coups, dictatorship and repression. Several prominent Lavalas figures also have been arrested.
Asked whether the peacekeepers suspected that Aristide was directing the unrest from South Africa, U.N. mission spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said, “There are factions here that have a real interest in creating a situation of chaos.”
Some Lavalas members who fled after Aristide’s departure have appealed to supporters to cease the provocations. “Lavalas promised everything to the people, but it failed,” Henri-Claude Menard, a former Aristide chief of staff, said in a Radio Kiskeya interview from Montreal.
Others who are still active in the party founded by Aristide, including jailed former Senate President Ivon Feuille, accuse Latortue’s government of seeking to prevent their participation in elections planned for late next year.
Adama Guindo, head of the U.N. Development Program here and one of the foreign architects of the plan for an interim government, expressed frustration over the security setbacks that followed successes in reinstating law and order after Aristide’s departure.
“I don’t want to say the interim government is doing the same things Aristide was doing in the way of exclusion and repression, but they don’t talk to each other,” Guindo said of Latortue’s Cabinet and the Lavalas remnants.
“The answer is dialogue and compromise. But whatever government comes to power here, the first thing it does is arrest opponents, put people in jail, kill. It won’t work.”