by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The administration of President George W. Bush appears undecided about how to deal with this week's violence and growing chaos in Haiti, and increasingly worried it could spark a new exodus of thousands of boat people onto the high seas.
Relief agencies have reported they are unable to get food supplies to areas affected by the chaos, raising the specter of growing malnutrition in a country where already one-half of the population of nearly eight million people was already "unable to secure their minimum food requirements", according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"The possibility of a mass exodus is much greater now, since the countryside is in so much turmoil, and people are resorting to slash-and-burn tactics", said Johnny McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York.
"They will get to the D.R. (Dominican Republic), but the D.R. is tightening its border. But people are now wanting to get out of danger as quickly as possible", he told IPS by telephone.
While tensions between the government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide and a broad-based civil opposition have been building for months, the immediate crisis was sparked by last week's takeover by an anti-Aristide gang of Gonaives, the country's fourth largest city.
The rebellion by the gang, which called itself the Gonaives Resistance Front, (GRF) spread quickly to other central coastal towns and cities, including St. Marc.
The group, known as the Cannibal Army when it was aligned with Aristide, turned against the president after its leader's execution-style killing, which it blamed on the government.
Fighting through the region has reportedly killed more than 50 people, including nearly 20 police officers. While St. Marc was retaken by the government, whose own militias have also taken over Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city, Gonaives and several smaller towns nearby remain in the hands of the GRF.
In the capital Port-au-Prince, civic opposition groups that have been demanding Aristide's resignation for months, cancelled a major protest march Thursday after pro-Aristide forces set up barricades and stoned gathering demonstrators.
Aristide also once again rejected demands that he step down, vowing to complete his term, which ends in 2006. First elected in 1990, only to be exiled in a coup d'etat several months later and then returned to power by U.S. troops in 1994, Aristide regained the presidency in elections that international observers deemed flawed.
Since his re-election, he has been at loggerheads with both the opposition and Washington, which, with some of its allies and international financial institutions like the World Bank, has withheld all but humanitarian assistance pending economic and political reforms.
What reforms have been carried out, largely at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have actually added to Aristide's unpopularity, particularly among key sectors like public-sector workers and poor people hit hard by cuts to subsidies for food and transportation, which had been the president's bedrock constituencies in the past.
The Bush administration has supported various mediation efforts, notably by the Organization of American States (OAS) and more recently by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
After meeting with CARICOM Jan. 31, Aristide agreed to a series of measures, including disarming pro-government gangs, reforming the police force, appointing a prime minister acceptable to the civic opposition, and calling new legislative elections, since the latest parliament's mandate expired last month.
But the opposition has continued to demand his resignation, and it was immediately after his return from Kingston that the GRF took over Gonaives, plunging the country into the current crisis.
The opposition, which spans the political spectrum from communists and labor unions previously allied with Aristide to the traditional business elite, has insisted it has no connection to the GRF or any armed group.
The increasing violence and polarization are putting the opposition in a difficult position, according to McCalla and Haiti experts. "They have tried to distance themselves from the violence, insisting that they only want to march peacefully", he said.
"They are trying to maintain the high ground, but they risk being overwhelmed by the armed groups," McCalla added.
While most analysts here fault both Aristide and the opposition for their obstinacy, all agree the Bush administration has behaved irresponsibly over the past three years and, now that it faces a crisis -- and one with potentially important domestic political consequences if Haitians begin taking to the sea in large numbers -- it is scrambling for an answer.
The basic problem, they say, is that, as in other foreign policy issues, the administration has been divided between those forces, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who favored engaging Aristide in order to achieve reforms, and others, mostly lower-ranking officials, who favored a more punitive or confrontational policy.
But with Powell distracted by the "war on terrorism", the policy was effectively run by lower-ranking members of the latter group.
"Essentially, the administration spoke out strongly against the government at the OAS and other forums and at the same time, whether deliberately or not, sent signals through presumed representatives, like the International Republican Institute (IRI), to the opposition not to engage in political compromise with Aristide", said Robert McGuire, a Haiti expert at Trinity College here.
"To a great extent, Aristide helped the U.S. in this by not really putting together a government that was functional", added McCalla. "It made it easier for the administration to ignore".
But the situation has now reached a crisis point, and the administration appears caught off-guard.
Publicly, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher this week called for calm and dialogue while suggesting that a political settlement "will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed".
One unidentified "senior State Department official" suggested to the 'New York Times' that Aristide might have to step down.
"They're not hiding the fact they'd like to see Aristide go, but they don't have a plan", said McCalla, who noted the lack of planning was similar to the administration's performance on Iraq.
But he predicted that Aristide's ouster or forced resignation will probably make things worse, if for no other reason than pro-Aristide militias will refuse to disarm.
The Haiti Democracy Project (HDP), a U.S. group that backs the opposition, says it favors an urgent meeting of OAS foreign ministers to empower a delegation to go to Haiti to make recommendations for restoring stability.
HDP director Jim Morrell said his group anticipates those suggestions would include Aristide's resignation and the establishment of a transitional government.
But the administration, he stressed, has not signed on. "I wish the administration had been more supportive, but they haven't been. As for the last few days, they're just reacting to the situation on the ground, saying 'Oh my God, this thing is becoming chaotic'."
"They're scared of the refugees that can be generated by this and how many Coast Guard cutters can go out to intercept them", said Morrell, a point on which McCalla and McGuire also agreed.
Already last month, a dozen private relief groups were contacted about running a new refugee camp with as many as 50,000 beds at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
The base, which housed 70,000 Haitians interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard during the last Haitian exodus 12 years ago, is currently being used as the main prison for suspected members of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist group captured in the "war on terrorism".
Ironically, the Justice Department last April declared that Haitians posed a threat to national security because their homeland was being used as a transit for Islamist terrorists.
"This will become a domestic political problem for Bush, just as it was for his father, if we see pictures of boats capsizing, or the Coast Guard saving people, or some coming ashore in Florida", predicted McGuire.
February 12, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.