(IPS) WASHINGTON -- After three years of malign neglect, the administration of President George W. Bush is scrambling to come up with a coherent policy to halt rising violence and chaos in Haiti that could still provoke a major exodus of desperate boat people seeking refuge in Florida.
With rebel gangs holding Haiti's fourth largest city, Gonaives, the Central Plateau town of Hinche, and vowing to move on Cap Haitien, the country's second largest city, analysts here believe the country could be moving toward total breakdown, or civil war. [Editor's note: Cap-Haitien was captured Feb. 22]
Moreover, both President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his civil opposition, the Group of 184, appear as inflexible as ever about negotiating a political settlement.
Such a pact is seen as indispensable to the administration's agreeing to participate in an international military or police force to restore order to the Caribbean nation, which, ironically, is marking its bicentennial as an independent nation this year.
The point man on U.S. Haiti policy at the moment is Secretary of State Colin Powell who for the first time suggested Thursday that Washington would not oppose an agreement between Aristide and the civil opposition that included his departure from office before his term ends in February 2006.
As the crisis grew over recent weeks, Powell had insisted that Aristide should be permitted to complete his term provided that he agreed to reforms that would ensure a stronger voice in the government for the opposition.
"He is the president for some time to come yet", Powell, who played a role in Aristide's restoration to the presidency 10 years ago, said in a radio interview Thursday. "You know, if an agreement is reached that moves that in another direction, that's fine", he added.
Aristide was quick to respond, declaring several hours later at a ceremony honoring police who have been slain in the gang uprising, that he has no intention of leaving. "I am ready to give my life if that is what it takes to defend my country", he said.
While his rhetoric appeared calculated to appeal to Haiti's nationalist sentiments, the stakes Aristide spoke of have probably become more compelling over the last several days as former chiefs of a notorious death squad have emerged as leaders of the uprisings.
Amnesty International on Wednesday denounced the presence in Hinche at the head of rebels forces there of Louis Jodel Chamblain, the former leader of the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which carried out a reign of terror that took the lives of many hundreds of suspected Aristide activists during military rule between 1990 and 1994, when a U.S.-led intervention restored Aristide to power.
Chamblain, who apparently slipped across the border from the Dominican Republic where he had been in exile for almost a decade, was convicted in absentia of involvement in the assassination of Antoine Izmery, a prominent pro-democracy activist.
Reports from Hinche indicated Chamblain is accompanied by Guy Philippe, Cap Haitien's police chief, and Jean Pierre Baptiste, alias "Jean Tatoune", who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his participation in a 1994 massacre that killed dozens of people in the Raboteau district of Gonaives.
Chamblain's forces are said to be far better equipped with trucks and machine guns and other weapons than the beleaguered 4,000-man Haitian police force, according to reports from Haiti. Aristide abolished the army in 1995.
"As rebel forces, under leadership of convicted perpetrators of human rights violations, expand their control in the centre and north of the country, and the population of conflicted areas is cut off from supplies of food and medicines, fears of a mass population outflow from Haiti are bound to increase," Amnesty said Wednesday in a warning that must have sounded particularly ominous to Bush's re-election campaign team.
Indeed, predictions by Florida's two Democratic senators Wednesday that Bush's failure to take a leadership role in resolving the crisis risked a major refugee crisis, similar to what Florida faced 10 years ago during military rule, appeared to galvanize the administration.
It had previously indicated it wanted the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of American States (OAS) to take the lead, and had rebuffed the idea of sending U.S. troops or police to Haiti, even as part of an international force.
In meetings in Kingston with CARICOM leaders at the end of January, Aristide agreed to implement a series of steps as part of a political settlement with the opposition, including the reform and depoliticization of the Haitian police force, the appointment of a prime minister acceptable to the opposition, new parliamentary elections, and the disarmament of pro-Aristide gangs.
But the opposition greeted Aristide's return with renewed demands that he step down immediately. Several days later, the "Artibonite Resistance Front", a gang that had been previously allied with Aristide, took over Gonaives, launching the insurgency.
Powell is now suggesting that Washington is actively lining up what he called a "solid consensus" with France, Canada, CARICOM and OAS leaders on the possible constitution of an international force that would oversee any agreement between the civic opposition and Aristide.
But the problem, according to Jocelyn McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, is to work out such a deal, particularly given the growing chaos and the failure of the opposition to compromise on its demand for Aristide to resign.
"The opposition thinks they have a noose around Aristide, and it's a matter of time before he falls, but it's a very bad gamble", he told IPS, noting that some elements associated with the U.S. administration have encouraged it in this belief.
This was noted as well by James Dobbins, former president Bill Clinton's special envoy to Haiti, who is also close to Powell, in a 'New York Times' column published Thursday. He called for a bipartisan U.S. policy based on five major principles.
Aristide, he wrote, should serve out his term; the international community should take a major role in preparing and administering the 2006 elections; Washington should greatly increase its economic aid to Haiti (much of which has been withheld in order to prod the president into political and economic reforms); and more aid should go to the government itself to strengthen its institutions, rather than through non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Dobbins also called for Washington to get directly involved in mediation because, "only the United States has real influence in Haiti".
McCalla, a former Aristide partisan who, like many other supporters became disillusioned with his leadership, described Dobbins' proposal as "reasonable", and called for Powell to get the administration to "at least get behind it".
But the key problem is that Aristide and the Group of 184 are still at odds. "There has to be some knocking of heads," he said.
Nor is there much time, McCalla stressed. "If the uprising goes on for another two or three weeks, there is a possibility of civil war. The key issue is whether the gangs in Gonaives and Hinche recruit people and arm them and tell them to do whatever they want. Then you have a civil war of the Sierra Leone type".
February 20, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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