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The terrifying inferno of the 1991 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and left hundreds of his supporters dead has returned to haunt Little Haiti. The drab storefront on NW 54th Street that serves as headquarters of Veye Yo, where refugees of that coup now gather to watch videotapes of Haitian television news and assess the plight of their beloved president, is again filled with the twined spirits of outrage and dread.
Veye Yo, taking its name from a Kreyol exhortation for citizens to be vigilant, was formed in 1978 by Haitian priest Gerard Jean-Juste to help refugees fleeing the murderous tonton macoutes who kept order through torture and slaughter during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. After the 1991 coup, Veye Yo served again as a haven for the displaced. The taxi drivers, construction workers, and other laborers at Veye Yo thought their catastrophe had ended when 20,000 U.S. troops restored Aristide to power in 1994. They now realize they were wrong about that, as Haiti's democracy deteriorates into a grisly state of anarchy. But they think they are right about who the thugs are: the former death squad leaders who seized the cities of Gonaives on February 5 and Cap Haitien on Sunday and are demanding Aristide resign before his term expires two years from now. "No, no, no! He must stay," insists a young man who fled Haiti eight years ago, one of about 80 people who gathered at Veye Yo on a recent evening. He would only identify himself as a schoolteacher. "If he has to die in office, he must stay."
On another night, a Haitian man stands before a group of Veye Yo members seated in folding metal chairs and laments loudly and furiously in Kreyol. He says he nearly drowned and died of dehydration when he fled after the 1991 coup. "Just look at how it's going. Public safety has broken down! The last time, when I had to flee, it was hell! ... A tragedy!" He added that more Haitians are likely to risk their lives in perilous waters to come to the United States.
At least 70 people have died since February 5, when anti-Aristide gunmen armed with assault rifles seized control of Gonaives. Since then they have dubbed themselves the Revolutionary Artibonite Resistance Front and launched raids on other Haitian towns. At press time they securely held Gonaives and Cap Haitien, and were threatening to sack the capital, Port-au-Prince.
At Veye Yo people lay blame for the latest effort to oust Aristide on the same folks who succeeded in doing so in 1991: Haiti's greedy gentry. "When Aristide asked [the elite] to pay taxes, the first thing they did was a coup d'état," recounts Lucie Tondreau, a 49-year-old Veye Yo member who runs a small political consulting firm in Little Haiti. "Today you have Andy Apaid [the U.S.-born millionaire businessman who leads the anti-Aristide Group 184], who has a factory in Haiti where people are getting paid 68 U.S. cents a day. Aristide is trying to say we must have a minimum wage, we must have respect for the workers. And [the elite] don't like that because they're used to having it their way for so long."
Tondreau, who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Miami-Dade Commissioner Dorrin Rolle last fall, is also co-host of Radio Veye Yo, a show on WRHB-AM (1020). During a recent call-in segment of Tondreau's program, callers, between snippets of melancholy patriotic ballads, express concerns for people left at the mercy of marauding rebels by Haiti's sparse police force. One man says the opposition activists were not politically motivated but were simply opportunistic gang members. "In Gonaives, these same ones traffic drugs, extort money, and steal cars all the time," he complains.
After weeks of ambivalence, Secretary of State Colin Powell finally branded the leaders of the Gonaives uprising "murderers and thugs." He was referring to three notorious figures involved in the 1991 coup: Guy Philippe, former police chief of Cap Haitien, and death squad commanders Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Jean Tatoune. The Haitian government accuses Philippe of planning a December 2001 attack on the national palace that left ten people dead. A Haitian court convicted Chamblain in absentia in 1995 and sentenced him to life in prison for the 1993 murder of democracy activist Antoine Izmery. Tatoune was sentenced to life for his role in the 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters in the Raboteau section of Gonaives. He escaped from prison in 2002. Both were members of FRAPH (the Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress), a paramilitary group established in 1993 that terrorized Aristide supporters. In 1994, when President Clinton sent U.S. soldiers to Haiti to restore Aristide to office, American troops chased FRAPH and the military regime of Raoul Cedras out of Port-au-Prince. FRAPH founder Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, who currently lives in New York City, subsequently maintained that he formed the group with encouragement and financial backing from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA.
While Veye Yo members concur with Powell's disparaging remarks about the anti-Aristide insurgency, they remain highly skeptical. "In 1991 we heard the same thing from the [first] Bush administration," grumbles Veye Yo chairman Tony Jeanthenor. "It's just talk. Those terrorists in Gonaives are wearing U.S. flags around their necks. And they are members of FRAPH. FRAPH was a creation of the U.S. government."