Poor still resist Haitian coup

October 16, 1991

By Pip Hinman

Despite a heavy army presence and curfew, supporters of ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide are still campaigning for his return and have set up barricades around the shanty towns surrounding the capital Port-au-Prince. The army has banned street demonstrations and is shooting indiscriminately to terrorise the half of Haiti's population which lives in these districts.

Human rights activists say that official reports of 250 people dead and several hundred wounded may be a serious underestimation. The real figure may be as high as 1000 dead.

According to one radio station, 30 to 40 people were massacred in the slum district of Cite Soleil on October 4. Emergency services at the Port-au-Prince hospital are reportedly refusing entry to all but the most serious cases due to overcrowding.

World leaders have condemned the September 30 coup, and the Organisation of American States has imposed an economic embargo.

Speaking from exile in Caracas, Venezuela, Aristide urged Haitians to resist peacefully.

A radical Catholic priest of the Salesian order who became a popular spokesperson for the poor, Aristide was elected last December with 65% of the vote. An attempted coup in January was defeated when thousands of angry Haitians mobilised against the Tonton Macoute, the private army of the Duvalier dynasty that had ruled Haiti for most of this century.

Since his inauguration in February, Aristide has attempted to bring in the most basic of reforms, including the provision of clean drinking water for all and a literacy campaign aimed at reducing illiteracy from 85% to 50%. It was his efforts to root out corruption in the government services and the army and to introduce new tax laws that most angered business and military leaders.

In its short time in office, the Aristide government managed to reduce the government payroll, drastically reducing giant deficits in the bankrupt ministries, purge the army of Duvalierist officers while promoting younger officers drawn from the peasantry and working class and introduce a land reform program aimed at decentralising political power.

But the constraints on Aristide's program were great. Constitutionally denied the ability to legislate on forming local popular people's organisations, Aristide spoke often of the vital link between such institutions and the successful outcome of the reforms. The National Front for Democracy and Change, which supported Aristide during the election, turned out to be riddled with opportunists and careerists intent only on securing privileges for themselves.

On October 7, a provisional president, Justice Joseph Nerette, was appointed by the coup leaders. He was sworn in three days later after fewer than half of the 81 members of parliament (surrounded by the are the presidency vacant.

The OAS is demanding that Aristide be reinstalled as president and that the United Nations urge its members to join the embargo. While the United States government has condemned the coup, it had made no secret of its disquiet with the Aristide government.

After the failed coup in January, the New York Times quoted a senior US official as saying that the Pentagon was considering channeling funds through the army for "advice and financing a civic action program of bridge and road building".

White House spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater said on October 8 that what most interested Washington was the restoration of law and order in Haiti, not a particular individual.

Until Venezuela and Mexico's oil embargo started to bite, Haiti's business and military leaders had echoed the US line. More recent reports indicate that they may be prepared to compromise. "We see the problem as that of two evils, and we must choose the least destructive one", said a leader of the Association of Haitian Industrialists on October 10.

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