Global Policy Forum

Background on Haiti:

Resource Center for the Americas
February 24, 2004

As violent gangs invade Haitian towns, murdering police and opening jails, news reports repeat several catch phrases as if everyone knew their meaning. In fact, those catch phrases—from "the opposition" to "flawed (or fraudulent) elections of 2000"—are laden with political and historical freight.

What happened in the 2000 elections?

Two elections took place in 2000. The first elections, in May, saw full participation by a range of political parties, including the Lavalas party of now-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the May elections of legislators and municipal government authorities, Lavalas won by a landslide. Observers from the Organization of American States did not fault the conduct of the elections. However, in eight cases, the electoral council seated Senators who had won by a plurality of the votes, not by an absolute majority. Because these eight Senators were Lavalas party candidates, the opposition immediately cried fraud.

Knowing they would lose the presidential election in November 2000, the opposition Democratic Convergence refused to participate. They cited the eight contested senatorial elections as "proof" that the presidential vote would be rigged. In November, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected.

The OAS tried, in more than 20 missions, to arrange new elections or compromise between the Democratic Convergence and the government. President Aristide persuaded seven of the eight senators to resign, clearing the way for new elections. Aristide agreed to OAS proposals for new elections. The Democratic Convergence did not.

In January, the terms of all legislators elected in 2000 expired. The opposition refused to allow new legislative elections, so now there is no legislature.

The opposition has consistently demanded—and continues to demand—that Aristide immediately leave the presidency, without completing his elected term of office, and they be put in charge of a non-elected "transition" government. They will accept nothing less. They want power, but not elections. They know they could not win elections, as they never have had anywhere near majority support.

Most recently—on February 21—Aristide unconditionally accepted yet another international peace proposal, this one calling for power-sharing with the opposition.

Who is in the opposition?

The political opposition is headed by the Democratic Convergence, which is primarily led by the Haitian business elite. Other opposition groups, such as the Group of 184, include students, teachers, and even former Aristide supporters who have become disillusioned with his government's performance. But the political opposition, while it turns out demonstrators in the streets of the capital, is not the power behind the current armed "rebellion" in Haiti.

The leadership of the armed rebels is drawn from criminal gangs and from the disbanded army, which was responsible for the 1991-94 reign of terror that took over the government and killed more than 5,000 Haitians. Former leaders of that era, some of whom have been tried in absentia and convicted of massacres and other crimes, have returned from their hiding places to lead the armed rebels. They include former military death-squad leader and convicted murderer Louis-Jodel Chamblain and former police chief and coup plotter Guy Phillippe.

How did Aristide become president and what has he done?

Aristide, a populist, leftist, charismatic leader of the poor, was first elected president in 1991, by a landslide. Within a few months, he was deposed and replaced by a brutal military government, whose leaders now seek to return to power. In 1994, U.S. and U.N. forces restored Aristide to the presidency. Haiti had been the poorest country in the hemisphere before 1991. After the coup, its economy was further destroyed. Yet international economic aid, promised for Haiti's rebuilding, came in tiny trickles rather than in the needed flood.

When Aristide's first term ended, he acceded to the constitutional prohibition against consecutive presidential terms, even though he had lived in exile for most of his first term. The next president, also a candidate of Aristide's Lavalas party, was René Preval. During Preval's 1996-2001 term, the opposition continued to do what it does so well—to oppose any and all government initiatives and sabotage progress. In 2000, Aristide was again elected president, and he began his current five-year term in 2001.

Seizing upon the excuse offered by opposition criticism of the 2000 elections, the United States orchestrated a suspension of international aid. The small amounts of aid that have been doled out have been conditioned on adoption of neo-liberal economic measures, such as cutting education spending and ending fuel subsidies. These measures are anathema to Aristide's political base, and his reluctant acquiescence in them has alienated some of that base. Haiti remains divided between the desperately poor farmers and slum-dwellers and a small elite running export-import businesses and light industry.

Who are the police and who are the "thugs"?

After 1994, the Haitian military was disbanded, but not disarmed. A small police force—5,000 officers for a country of eight million— was trained with U.S. and international assistance. They are outgunned by criminal gangs and underpaid by the government. Today they are a prime target of the rebels. In Hinche, as in other towns, the rebels' first move was to attack the police station, kill the police, and open the jail.

The opposition speaks repeatedly of "Aristide's thugs" or the chiméres. It is true that Aristide supporters, including "thugs" recruited from the slums, have targeted opposition demonstrators and organizations that have taken anti-Aristide positions, including unions and students. The opposition also claims that the rebels are former Aristide supporters, including members of the "Cannibal Army." This claim is, at best, a misrepresentation and a half-truth, based on the strange saga of the Metayer brothers.

Amiot Metayer was the leader of a criminal gang that called itself the "Cannibal Army." Amiot Metayer and his gang supported the military from 1991-94, but his allegiance was based on profit rather than principle. For a time during Aristide's second term, he professed allegiance to Lavalas.

That allegiance ended when the Aristide government jailed Amiot Metayer for arson in July 2002. His gang broke into the jail and released him and 158 other prisoners in August 2002. After the jailbreak, Metayer and his gang first opposed the government, then supported it again. Last September, Amiot Metayer was murdered.

The gang, now led by Amiot's brother, Butter Metayer, blamed the Aristide government for Amiot's killing, and again threw its lot in with Aristide's opponents. Now the gang has changed its name from "Cannibal Army" to the "Gonaives Resistance Front." This is the gang that took over Gonaives and that now, in cooperation with the former military, is attempting to oust Aristide and take control of all Haiti.

Where is the United States government in all of this?

The United States government has never been comfortable with the leftist, populist platform of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy has consistently funded opposition groups in Haiti, including many members of the Democratic Convergence.

During the current violence, the U.S. position has fluctuated from day to day, and from official to official. Donald Rumsfeld, quoted on PBS News Hour February 16, gave perhaps the most accurate view of the currently unclear U.S. position: "Needless to say, everyone is hopeful that the situation, which tends to ebb and flow down there, will stay below a certain threshold, and that there's—we have no plans to do anything. By that, I don't mean we have no plans.

Obviously, we have plans to do everything in the world that we can think of. But we—there's no intention at the present time, or no reason to believe, that any of the thinking that goes into these things year in and year out would have to be utilized."

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