Haiti, Miami, and Violent Rebellion

The vodou appears to have worked. In Gonaives, a port town in northern Haiti where the armed insurrection began that ultimately forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, an ash mound in front of the grave of Amiot Metayer is a charred reminder of an angry people.

It is the remnants of a vodou circle. The oungan and others came here to sprinkle salt and wood and curse Aristide, praying that the spirits would drive him from power. The people of Gonaives blamed Aristide for Metayer's murder this past September. Their rage, already stoked by complaints of local police abuse and entrenched corruption, ignited the battle against the president.

Although it is one of the impoverished nation's largest cities, Gonaives is remote by most standards, accessible by a single road that is intermittently paved, a dirt path, and a rugged, rock-strewn track. The nearest airport is about three hours north in Cap Haitien. Yet its ties to South Florida abound. Rusty freighters from the Miami River dock here and unload sundry goods, everything from toilet paper to bicycles. Perhaps because of the boat traffic, the town is festooned with effluvia from 700 miles away: one home features a tarp made from a Miami Seaquarium banner, and numerous residents wear Marlins, "Miami USA," and Heat shirts. This is also where Haiti's new prime minister, Gerard Latortue, grew up before eventually leaving for exile in Palm Beach County.

And while Gonaives is the place where curses were cast and guns loaded for the revolt, Miami is where Aristide's fate was sealed. Butteur Metayer was visiting his cousin in North Miami when he learned of his brother's death. He vowed to seek revenge. After all, his brother was not simply assassinated with a bullet. Amiot Metayer was savagely shot through the eyes and heart.

Butteur, who worked at an auto plant in Michigan, returned to his hometown in 2000 to be with Amiot. "My brother and me, we were living together in Gonaives. But I'm vacationing in Miami when I hear my brother die in Haiti, and I come back," Butteur recently told me in chopped English while patrolling the streets of Gonaives. With him was a contingent of men shouldering M14 rifles and Uzi submachine guns. "I fight Aristide and I take him from power."

After Butteur returned to fight, Billy Augustin emerged as one of his most trusted soldiers. Augustin told the New York Times he had been a security guard at a Miami Target store prior to returning to Haiti eight months ago. (I made two trips to Gonaives from Port-au-Prince to meet with Augustin, but on both occasions he was deployed to outlying towns to provide security.)

Amiot Metayer, the charismatic and popular leader of an armed group, had become an awkward problem for Aristide. Originally he was a strong and ruthless backer of the president and his Lavalas Family political party. Metayer led one of Aristide's OPs, or organisations populaire, the groups Lavalas armed to enforce the president's political will. OPs throughout the country beat, harassed, and allegedly killed members of opposition groups, as well as journalists critical of Aristide. In Gonaives several radio reporters were forced to flee. Human-rights workers alleged in 2002 that Metayer had ordered a man involved with an anti-Aristide political party to be burned to death. The Organization of American States pressured Aristide to charge Metayer. In July 2002 Haitian police did arrest him on arson charges, but in August his followers, who called themselves the Cannibal Army, commandeered a tractor and smashed through the prison walls to free him, along with more than 150 other prisoners.

Foreign governments may have denounced Metayer, but he was a champion to the poor here. In the seaside Gonaives slum of Raboteau where he lived, he had become a folk hero after fighting the brutal military regime that ousted Aristide in a 1991 coup. Such resistance provoked the military to kill dozens of innocent people in what became known as the Raboteau massacre of 1994. When the U.S. restored Aristide to the presidency that same year, Metayer made a show of protecting the poor neighborhoods, paying the medical bills of the sick, and finding jobs for the young.

After his jailbreak, Metayer lived openly in Gonaives, protected by supporters with automatic weapons. Police said they couldn't risk trying to capture him because it would lead to a bloodbath. His arrest turned him against Aristide, but eventually the two made peace. His brother Butteur claims their truce came at a price: Aristide purportedly paid Metayer $25,000 for his allegiance. And therein lay one of the first indications of how tenuous was Aristide's hold on power. Either the government was too weak to enforce the law, or it was looking for an excuse not to jail a politically influential ally. Neither option inspired confidence in Aristide's leadership.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten