Ian Thomson

Nightmare in the Caribbean

In the 200 years since independence, Haiti has endured a vicious cycle of coups: Ian Thomson examines the background to the latest crisis

Text settings

Shortly after Christmas I went to Haiti for the first time in 13 years. The collapse of the Aristide regime was still two months away, but the Caribbean republic was already descending into chaos. At the airport of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the familiar smells of drainage and burning rubbish hit me forcefully and it was as though I had never been away. Haiti’s history — a vicious cycle of coups d’états — had not changed either. Last Sunday the airport was the scene of a hurried departure as Haiti’s President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, flew out of the country into exile. In an armed uprising backed by the US, he had been deposed by former death-squad commanders and ex-military.

As well as being constitutionally illegal, Aristide’s fall has soured Haiti’s long-awaited bicentennial celebrations. On 1 January 1804 the African slaves on Haiti’s sugar plantations overthrew their French masters and proclaimed the world’s first black republic. Recently the airport was renamed ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ after the slave leader and national hero, and preparations had been under way for bicentennial wreath-laying ceremonies. The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, was in Port-au-Prince the day I arrived and had donated R10 million ($1.4 million) to help with the festivities. Great Britain, by contrast, had shown scant interest in the bicentenaire and sent no diplomatic representative. I was the only British journalist there.

I was met at the airport by my friend Alix Legros, who turned up with an armed guard. ‘For our protection,’ he explained. Alix had been chief of airport security but in 1999 had been shot at by Aristide’s thugs for refusing to let through a cocaine shipment from Colombia. Alix is an art-dealer now, and on the way to my hotel he showed me a photograph he still carries of Aristide as a Roman Catholic ordinand from the early 1970s. Alix, like thousands of Haitians, had once believed that ‘the Messiah’ could redeem this country and its run-down people. Over the last five months, however, supporters of Aristide have engaged in bloody battles with the ex-police and paramilitary which have claimed more than 130 lives. Banners stretched across the road from the airport nevertheless proclaimed: ‘THE CREDO OF THE HAITIAN PEOPLE IS: JESUS, HAITI, ARISTIDE’.

When I was in Haiti in 1990 Aristide was about to become the country’s first democratically elected president since Fran