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Jean-Bertrand Aristide (2000-2004)

A crisis had been brewing in Haiti since Mr. Aristide's party swept legislative elections in 2000 that were widely dismissed as flawed, and international donors froze millions of dollars in aid. First round elections for local councils -- ASEC and CASEC, municipal governments, town delegates, the Chamber of Deputies, and two-thirds of the Senate took place on May 21, 2000. On May 21, 2000, the Haitian people showed their strong desire for democracy. The election drew the participation of a multitude of candidates from a wide array of political parties and a voter turnout of more than 60%. Manipulated vote counting by the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) prevented run-off elections for eight Senate seats and gave the FL a virtual sweep in the first round. Although the flawed vote count undercut the credibility of the election, Haiti's new Parliament, including the contested Senators, was convened on August 28, 2000.

After this flawed election, Haiti's main bilateral donors re-channeled their assistance away from the government and announced they would not support or send observers to the November elections. Most opposition parties regrouped in an alliance that became the Democratic Convergence. Elections for President and nine Senators took place on November 26, 2000. All major opposition parties boycotted these elections. So low was the confidence in Haiti's government that only 5 percent of the electorate voted in the 2000 presidential election, which returned the still-popular Jean-Bertand Aristide to power. Unfortunately, there were irregularities that occurred in the election and there was a post-election problem of the vote count that threatened to undo the democratic work of the citizens of Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide emerged as the easy victor of these controversial elections, and the candidates of his FL party swept all contested Senate seats. Aristide's party, Lavalas Family, claimed an overall victory in disputed legislative and municipal elections. On February 7, 2001, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was inaugurated as President.

Despite significant economic and political support, Haiti teetered from political crisis to political crisis. By 2001, external support had receded. A new political crisis, stemming from problems associated with parliamentary and local elections held on May 21, 2000, impeded Haiti's economic development and its relations with the international community. In this changed atmosphere, Aristide returned to the Presidential Palace in February 2001 for a second term as President.

Aristide's second tenure as president was only slightly less chaotic than the first. Economically, Haiti plunged further into widespread poverty. Political fighting between Aristide's political party, Lavalas Family (Fanmi Lavalas - FL), a Creole phrase meaning "cleansing flood," and the opposition party, Democratic Convergence (Convergence Démocratique - CD), repeatedly broke into violence and the suppression of human rights. Pro-Aristide gangs attacked opposition leaders. Armed opposition armies struck back.

By 2001, external support had receded. On December 17, 2001, the crisis escalated as armed commandos stormed the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince in an assault that the Government of Haiti (GOH) characterized as an attempted coup d'état. With the ruling party increasingly obsessed with the possibility of another coup in the context of domestic hostility and international isolation, factions within the ruling Lavalas have formed armed gangs. A case in point is the Popular Organization for the Development of Raboteau, more commonly known as the "Cannibal Army." Raboteau is a lower-class neighborhood of Gonaïves, Haiti's third largest city. Following the December 17, 2001 attack on the National Palace, Cannibal Army members burned the homes of opposition leaders in Gonaïves, as part of a nationwide campaign of reprisals for an alleged coup d'état. In response, foreign governments and international human rights organizations called for prosecution of vigilantes as a sign that the government was serious about enforcing the rule of law.

Following a February 2002 visit to Haiti, Eugenia Charles, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) representative to the OAS, expressed frustration with what she saw as intransigence on the part of the opposition: "We met with government officials, members of civil society and the Convergence. After listening to the members of the Convergence, I had to ask them why they called themselves "Convergence." They were not converging on anything. They were not agreeing on anything. They cannot get together to form a plan. No one in Convergence was talking about what the Haitian people themselves want. That bothered me. No one is asking, "What do the Haitian people want?" I must say that I was very pleased with the government's point of view. They were anxious to get this matter settled. They weren't trying to say, "We are the government so we are right." There was no feeling like that at all. Their position was: "How can we get this thing solved?" And they did in fact do things that showed that they were interested in getting things settled". The comments were noteworthy because of Dame Charles' conservative credentials. She attracted international notice in 1983 while serving as prime minister of Dominica, with a public endorsement of President Ronald Reagan's decision to invade the small island nation of Grenada to remove a Marxist government.

Continuing efforts at negotiation in Haiti were fruitless. Prime Minister Jean-Marie Cherestal submitted his resignation on January 21, 2002. President Aristide then replaced him with Yvon Neptune, a senator from Haiti's Western Department, which includes Port-au-Prince. Following his inauguration on March 14, Neptune appointed Marc Bazin, who had run against Aristide for the presidency in 1990, "minister of negotiation." Bazin was charged with seeking to resolve the two-year impasse between the government and opposition over elections. Bazin was able to bring the two sides together only once, in June, at the residence of the papal nuncio. On September 20, 2002, he submitted his resignation, saying "When I took this job, I gave myself a deadline of seven months to show substantive progress in the negotiations and, while we have had some small successes, the difficulties between the government and the opposition remain." He said he would revive his own political party to contest the next elections.

In September 2002, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted Resolution 822 as a catalyst for resolving the political impasse. Included in the resolution was a provision calling for a legitimate Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which was to be charged with planning local, municipal, and legislative elections during the year; however, the elections were never held.

Beset by constant demands for his resignation, and by the opposition's refusal to take part in elections, President Aristide has argued that this is part of a recurring pattern in Haitian history. He has characterized the opposition's actions as the latest chapter in a longstanding conflict between lower-class blacks and upper-class mulattos, a conflict traditionally settled by force rather than ballots. "After 200 years of independence we still have some consequences from that past where we had 32 coups d'état," Aristide told the NEW YORK TIMES in December 2002. "It is not easy for all the political parties to forget about that bad way to behave, moving from one coup d'état to another." Earlier that month, in a speech delivered in Creole to residents of Les Cayes, Aristide told his mostly dark-skinned supporters, "You are peasants; you are poor. You are the same color I am. They don't like you. Your hair is kinky, same as mine. They don't like you. Your children are not children of big shots. They don't like you"

There were significant signs of erosion of public support for the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the year and a half since January 1, 2002. Haiti remains an overwhelmingly rural country, and it is in the countryside that President Aristide developed his largest mass base of support. Yet important peasant organizations that once stood by Aristide have grown disillusioned. Such is the case with the Papay Peasants Movement (Mouvman Peyizan Papay) and affiliated groups, which claim a membership of some 200,000. Once a close ally of Aristide, Movement leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste is now sharply critical: "Stolen elections, corruption, this will do nothing to help the people here, and we refuse to accept it ¿ We have always fought against this and will continue to do so, and with our work today, it is obvious that Aristide considers ... the independent peasant movements a threat to be eliminated".

Another group that once flocked to Aristide's movement was the student population. Yet thousands of students occupied the rectory of the State University of Haiti on November 15, 2002 to protest government interference in higher education. Joined by high school students and market women, they then marched on the National Palace, shouting "We don't want Lavalas!" Contributing to student disaffection with the government was a decision taken in July to postpone student elections and to dismiss the university vice chancellor. Agronomy student Jean David told a reporter that "while Aristide and Lavalas want to control everything, our country is dying".

Yet the opposition, loosely organized in the Democratic Convergence (Convergence Démocratique, CD) was united only in its dislike of Aristide and his Lavalas Family (Fanmi Lavalas) party. With no truly popular leader that could serve as an effective challenger to Aristide, the CD's most potent tools against the government were to boycott elections and to lobby foreign governments to withhold economic assistance. With the ruling party feeling increasingly under siege, the Popular Organizations (Organizations Populaires) that had formed its primary grassroots base have in many cases morphed into armed gangs that harass not only persons perceived as being in the opposition, but also rivals within the Lavalas Family. That led to decline in respect for the rule of law on the one hand, and increasing human rights violations on the other.

By February 2004, rebels controlled many of the country's towns and had moved within 40 kilometers of the capital. With no alternative, Aristide resigned the presidency. On February 29, 2004 Aristide submitted his resignation as President of Haiti and flew on a chartered plane to the Central African Republic. Boniface Alexandre, President (chief justice) of Haiti's Supreme Court, assumed office as interim President in accordance with Haiti's constitution. On recommendation from the Council of Elders, the President chose Gerard Latortue as interim Prime Minister. Boniface Alexandre, president of Haiti's Supreme Court, assumed the presidency in accordance with the constitution. UN peacekeeping forces descended on the island to protect Haitian citizens from marauding armed gangs, but stability proved fleeting.

On 09 March 2004 Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Congressional Black Caucus Haiti Task Force Co-Chair, introduced H.R. 3919 the TRUTH (The Responsibility to Uncover the Truth about Haiti) Act today, which calls for an independent bipartisan commission to uncover the facts about the Bush Administration's involvement in the recent coup d'etat in Haiti. The bill was co-sponsored by CBC Haiti Task Force Co-Chair John Conyers and 23 other Members.

"The TRUTH Act calls for the commission to investigate, among other questions, the following: 1) Did the U.S. Government impede democracy and contribute to the overthrow of the Aristide government? 2) Under what circumstances did President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resign, and what was the role of the United States Government in bringing about his departure? 3) To what extent did the U.S. impede efforts by the international community, particularly the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, to prevent the overthrow of the democratically-elected Government of Haiti? 4) What was the role of the United States in influencing decisions regarding Haiti at the United Nations Security Council and in discussions between Haiti and other countries that were willing to assist in the preservation of the democratically-elected Government of Haiti by sending security forces to Haiti? 5) Was U.S. assistance provided or were U.S. personnel involved in supporting, directly or indirectly, the forces opposed to the government of President Aristide? 6) Was U.S. bilateral assistance channeled through nongovernmental organizations that were directly or indirectly associated with political groups actively involved in fomenting hostilities or violence toward the government of President Aristide?

"The Bush Administration's efforts in the overthrow of a democratically-elected government must be investigated," said Lee. "All of the evidence brought forward thus far suggests that the Administration has, in essence, carried out a form of 'regime change,' a different variation than it took in Iraq, but still regime change. The American people and the international community deserve to know the truth, and this bill will offer the opportunity to investigate the long-term origins of the overthrow of the Haitian government and the impact of our failure to protect democracy."




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