For Haitians, 2004 has proved to be a violent, explosive, and extremely volatile year. The insurgency in Haiti began in early February when a coalition of armed rebel groups successfully seized control of northern part of the small Caribbean island. The armed rebel groups have successfully ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who in 1990 became the country's first democratically elected president. So far, more than 50 people have died in the violence, and as the armed groups set their sites on the capital city of Port-au-Prince many diplomats are bracing themselves for a major crisis situation -- a potential civil war - in America's backyard.
The current unrest and violence in Haiti has been linked to the disputed elections of 2000. The political opposition, who has tried to distance themselves from the armed rebel groups, have adamantly protested that Mr. Aristide's re-election in 2000 and the accompanying legislative elections were fraudulent. The political opposition, known as the 'Group of 184' is comprised of businessmen and women, trade unions, socialists, artists, and number of political parties. In the last several years, the coalition has boycotted the Congress, and refused to cooperate in any government initiatives including new elections. They have effectively created a political stalemate in Haiti, and are demanding that Aristide resigns.
Since 2000, the political opposition has embraced nonviolent means to protest the government and its policies. The democratic opposition claims they have no ties whatsoever to the armed rebel groups and do not condone the violent insurgencies of the last few weeks. The political opposition had hoped that their formal rejection of the US-back peace plan this week would actually curb the uprising roiling the country. But the rebels with weapons ranging from M-16s and old bazookas and rock continue to be on the offensive.
While both sides are denying any formal ties, they are clearly linked by a common goal: the removal of the democratically elected President Aristide from power. A tangled and even unintentional web of alliances has emerged in Haiti between the political opposition and the rebel groups. This complex web of 'accidental' alliances is not difficult to understand, however, once one considers the historical and socio-economic situation of the country.
Violence has long simmered in Haiti since its independence in 1804. In the last 200 years, the small country has experienced more than 30 coups and has been notorious for some of the most brutal dictatorships in the history of the Western hemisphere. Haiti has been and continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with most of its population (approximately 800 people) living on less than $1 per day. Decades of poverty, environmental degradation, and instability have only been reinforced by the dramatic social inequality in the country between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking mulattos, 1% of who own nearly half the country's wealth. Furthermore, the country's infrastructure has almost completely collapsed and drug-trafficking has corrupted both the judicial system and the police force.
Poverty and the dire economic situation in Haiti has clearly been the driving force for the political opposition as well as the rebel groups. Both groups are holding the democratically elected government accountable for the continued socio-economic conditions that plague the country. Lack of adequate food, medical services, employment opportunities, and education are real security threats that have come to characterize the daily lives of Haitians. As illustrated in Haiti, national security is by no means limited to military security and the security of borders. Sustainable peace must be defined in terms of food security, economic security, health security, and even environmental security. These are the issues that are motivating the population to support the rebels' violent actions, and these are the issues that must be addressed by the current Haitian government, and more importantly by the international community if a civil war is going to be avoided there.
News Article - Bush Back International Police Force for Haiti
"Why Aristide Has to Finish His Term" -- Editorial from the International Herald Tribune
U.S. Library of Congress Country Study on Haiti
Understanding the Current Upheaval in Haiti - Council of Foreign Relations
"As rebels gain, how to help Haiti" - News Article from the Christian Science Monitor