A military-run nation lives amid disparity


GRESSIER, Haiti -- At the bare cement-block military station here where the din of Port-au-Prince gives way to the rustling of coconut palms, the Haitian military wants to sleep.

The sergeant in charge, dressed in cut-off shorts, T-shirt and gold necklace is peeved to be interrupted from a late afternoon nap in a chair tipped against a wall.

Not far from here, down the road that runs between green hills and the blue Caribbean, the bodies of 12 young men -- bound and shot -- were discovered early last week. But questions about what happened are an intrusion for this protector of the public.

"Non!" he spits in Creole to almost every question. Visitors had best leave, he growls, suddenly seeming more menacing than sleepy.

To stand before this figure of Haitian authority is at once laughable and scary -- a familiar dichotomy in a country of extreme poverty and rich culture, gentle simplicity and flash-fire emotion.

It is a disparity echoed in such sights and sounds as these: a beautiful toddler full of affection and curiosity living in fearful poverty; a colorful street scene of men holding hands in friendship and women calling out jokes erupting in unexpected violence; a battered nonworking phone for local calls next to a bank of modern telephone booths, all of which are working direct connections to the United States.

It is the reality that would greet U.S. troops, poised to forcefully set this Caribbean nation back on its troubled democratic path and reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency he lost to a military coup 34 months ago.

This is not Somalia, or Kuwait, nor does it even resemble its Caribbean neighbors, Panama and Grenada, where U.S. troops have been in the last 11 years.

The job of peacemakers who would come ashore here wouldn't stop with the removal of military strongmen at the top. They would have to find their own pace in the day-to-day rhythm of the weird, trying to decipher good from evil in unfamiliar surroundings.

A tropical fever

Haiti can be alternately bizarre and refreshing. Like the waxing and waning of a tropical fever, it can feel frantic one moment and calm the next.

Haitian military leaders orchestrated a sampling of that strangeness Thursday in a rally aimed at telling Americans to stay home.

In the afternoon swelter, three bands competed over what sounded like 1950s-vintage loudspeakers for the attention of about a thousand government employees and other anti-Aristide demonstrators to show support for the military junta. At one point, the crowd parted as an emaciated, naked and confused woman tried to find her way out of the noisy blare.

"We are the masters of our own land!" screamed Sen. Thomas Eddie Dupiton, echoing the monotony of other speeches that afternoon. He was flanked by some of those "masters," including a man dressed in a gigantic black velvet Mexican sombrero and satin jacket in the blue and red colors of the Haitian flag, and another who would rise periodically to gyrate approvingly at the speech.

One upper-class Haitian woman who did not deign to come down to the hot dusty streets of Port-au-Prince from the wealthy aerie of Petionville to attend the rally, was all for the demonstration.

A supporter of the overthrow of President Aristide, she bitterly chastises the United States for the inconvenience of the embargo which has frozen her assets in the United States and caused her to pay a fortune for smuggled gasoline.

'It's all lies'

"Lies, lies, it's all lies," she says of what the press and U.S. diplomats say about the fearful situation in Haiti today.

"I am not afraid here, there is some repression but what about the thousands dancing in the streets for soccer?" she said of Wednesday night's mass downtown party in celebration of Brazil's soccer win.

But when asked if she goes out at night herself, she admits it's too dangerous.

And when asked if she'd be quoted by name, she was too afraid.

Fear grips everyone

The fear she denies is the same brand felt across all classes.

On the road to Gressier near where the massacre of 12 happened, locals who saw the bodies or were drafted to bury them were quite forthcoming about it with visiting reporters and diplomats the morning after.

But apparently warnings not to talk had gone out, because a day later, dozens of people queried about the massacre in the area gave each other sidelong looks and offered nearly the same answer over and over: "I don't know anything about it. I was out of town."

One older man sitting under a palm frond lean-to near Gressier was asked if he had heard about "anything unusual."

His answer was "no," yet he turned to tell a friend he was being quizzed about "the massacre."

These are the vagaries of the Haitian way that occupying troops would face daily in the climate of fear that grips Haiti.

"No one trusts anyone," explains Francois Benoit, who served briefly as foreign minister to one of the several de facto presidents installed by the military since the overthrow of Father Aristide.

Now and during a potential invasion, he says, everyone from high politicians to street beggars will be hedging their bets, fearful of offending anyone who might eventually come to power.

Perhaps most unsettling for the fresh young U.S. troops who would have to police the area, would be the way a normal public setting of lively street vendors and crowded foot traffic can turn violent.

On the busy main road of the slums of Carrefour on Thursday, the driver of a tap tap -- the colorfully painted cars and pickups used for public transit -- suddenly pulled out a tire iron and crashed it into the temple of one of his passengers.

The passenger stood stunned, and a curious crowd formed around him.

It was a quick eruption of emotion that one by-stander judged as street justice -- guessing that because the driver was not set upon by the crowd, the victim must have had it coming.

Getting out

Airport scenes are similarly brutish. Lines are rarely formed. In the rush to get to the front of ticket counters, baggage is sometimes used as weaponry.

The amazing thing is that this frantic behavior happens not only on the dwindling flights out of troubled Port-au-Prince but also on flights coming in from other countries.

The violence and trouble here may not be the worst in the world, but you have to go to a much grimmer place to find worse.

Gregory Hofknecht, who just arrived from Sarajevo, Bosnia, to direct Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services here says, "It is a little less dramatic [than Sarajevo]."

While there is a sense here that the masses who voted for Father Aristide would welcome the helping hand of the United States to bring him back -- few are openly saying it.

A woman squatting alongside a road selling charcoal -- the main fuel for most Haitians -- would like to see an end to the embargo. Her charcoal sells for $35 a bag, or double the price it did a month ago because of overall inflation caused by the embargo, she says.

From beneath her straw hat, she smiles when asked whose fault the embargo is.

She chooses not to blame the United States, offering only this hopeless sense of her life: "I can't say, because I'm just like a bug, I can't do anything. But I do believe in God."

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