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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."
The Bush administration may be playing with fire, but some Haitian Americans here speak as though they would like to fan the flames advancing toward Aristide. "The man is a crazy nut person," fumes Lucie Orlando, the 59-year-old president of the Haitian American Republican Caucus. She could be found last week not in Little Haiti but Little Havana, at the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association's one-story clubhouse, to help announce a new alliance of anti-Aristide Haitian Americans, anti-Castro Cubans, and anti-Chavez Venezuelans. She was against Aristide in 1990 and still is. "I always opposed [his restoration to office]. And when I was saying it, people thought I was funny. I said, 'When I look at that man's eyes, I see something wrong behind his eyes.' I always say he look like evil to me."
"Aristide has gone from head of state to head of mob," adds Samir Mourra, president of a North Miami mortgage company and an organizer of the newfangled Haitian-Venezuelan-Cuban alliance. About 100 people turned out for an anti-Aristide rally the coalition staged last Saturday at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Their most creative contribution to the looming Haitian bloodbath was to christen a new Axis of Evil: Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Aristide. Demonstrators carried signs with photos of the four, featuring an X drawn through Hussein's visage.
"I believe that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is not a democrat -- he's a dictator hiding behind a shield of democracy," Mourra declares. "And if he does not want to resign, he must be forced out, because he is arming thugs to kill people." Paradoxically Mourra says he is opposed to armed struggle but thinks the anti-Aristide rebels are on the right path: "I'm against violence. I believe that once you promote violence it will come back to you like a boomerang. But what's happening right now I think has to follow its course. It is sad that it has to go this way, but I think that this way there will be less casualties." Mourra favors sending in U.S. peacekeeping troops but only after Aristide resigns. He believes the anti-Aristide gunmen will follow through on a promise to lay down their arms as soon as the elected president steps down.
But it is fairly clear that a vast majority of Haitian Americans do not find the Revolutionary Artibonite Resistance Front so trustworthy. A recent opinion poll, conducted by Miami-based Bendixen & Associates, found only six percent of Haitian Americans back the Front. Thirty-five percent, however, think Aristide should resign.
In contrast, the survey found 57 percent of Haitian Americans agree with this statement: Aristide should stay in office because he was elected by an overwhelming majority of Haitians in the 2000 presidential election. (Thirteen percent said they didn't know whether he should stay or go.)
Even Haitian Americans who avoided the horrors of the 1991 coup and its brutal aftermath sense a catastrophe in the making if the anti-Aristide rebels are left unchecked. "I was not paying that much attention to the Haiti thing, to tell you the truth," admits North Miami Commissioner Jacques Despinosse, a 59-year-old immigration consultant who moved to the U.S. from Haiti in 1968. "But when I'm reading in the paper that a former chief of police and FRAPH people were coming from Santo Domingo to [Haiti], I said no, this is no longer something local and we have to be serious about it [and send a] peacekeeping force. Otherwise it's going to be chaos! I'm not going to say Aristide is a lamb. He's not a lamb. And I'm not going to say the opposition is a lamb either. But all I'm saying is there's room for [the government and opposition] to sit down together like civilized people, like is happening here and in other countries.
"I think the United States is playing with fire by not sending a peacekeeping force right now," Despinosse adds. "You've got 5000 police, not even well trained. Of the eight million [people in Haiti], let's say two million revolt. I'm just giving [the opposition] the benefit of the doubt. That's a lot of bodies to cover."