Violence and political instability are growing in the Caribbean nation of Haiti. More than seven months after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country, political polarization and economic hardship are getting worse in the western hemisphere's poorest nation. Haiti's beleaguered interim government faces threats of extremist violence from all sides.
Haitian police work their way through the slums of Bel Air, exchanging gunfire with the dreaded "Chimeres", gangs of supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The "Chimeres", which in Creole roughly means "ghosts", live up to their name. They disappear into a maze of alleys in one of Port-au-Prince's oldest neighborhoods that is a stronghold of support for the former president.
More than 50 people have died in violence in Haiti since September 30, when Aristide supporters began violent demonstrations calling for his return. Mr. Aristide, who lives in exile in South Africa, says he was forced to leave Haiti earlier this year by the United States and France, a charge both countries strongly deny.
Haiti's interim government blames Mr. Aristide for the violence. Justice Minister Bernard Gousse told VOA what his government is facing is nothing less than terrorism.
"We are facing, the society is facing, acts of terrorism and very barbaric acts, where you have people being beheaded, and people being burned," he said. "It did not happen once, but you can say there is a scheme of terrorism that is coming down in the city, and the government has to face that, along with the police force."
A force of about 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers, headed by a Brazilian general, back up the Haitian police. But U.N. officials say it is not their job, but the job of Haiti's police, to disarm the gangs. A promised international force of 8,000 troops has failed to materialize. U.N. officials say they hope to add several thousand more troops by the end of the year.
Haiti's interim government has responded to the violence by stepping up U.N.-backed police sweeps in pro-Aristide slum areas, and by arresting several prominent Aristide supporters.
Among them is Dr. Louis Gerald Gilles, a surgeon and Haitian senator, who is a member of Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Family political party. Dr. Gilles, who was recently released from jail, says the violence in the slums is being caused by extremists, who have no connection with Mr. Aristide's political movement.
Dr. Gilles says he opposes the violence of the pro-Aristide gangs, who, he says, believe they can force the return of the former president. He says he does not know who is backing them, and he rejects government charges that he and other Lavalas politicians offer encouragement to the gangs.
Dr. Gilles and other Lavalas politicians say Haiti's government is using the violence to crack down on Lavalas, which is the largest single party in Haiti's suspended parliament.
Members of Haiti's interim government reject the charges, saying there has been no crackdown on Lavalas political activities, but that Lavalas activists who support the gangs will be brought to justice. "I reject them altogether. Because during the six months the government has been in place, the Lavalas movement has been able to stage demonstrations," said Mr. Gousse. "They have their media, and the Aristide Foundation is still functioning. Lots of civil servants are still in place, and even some have been promoted. So, I reject any accusation of harassment."
The growing violence is raising fears of involvement by another group of heavily armed Haitians; members of Haiti's disbanded army. Former army members led a rebellion earlier this year that helped to force Mr. Aristide out of office and the country. Now, they are threatening to move against the pro-Aristide gangs.
Speaking to VOA at his heavily fortified house outside Port-au-Prince, ex-Haitian Army Major Remissainthe Ravix says he is waiting for the government to call for assistance.
He says he knows where the "Chimeres" are, and he is ready to take them on. He says Haiti's government should fulfill its responsibility to end the violence, and he is willing to do his part to bring that about.
While some members of Haiti's interim government have said they would welcome support from anyone to end the violence, others like Justice Minister Bernard Gousse warn of a catastrophe, if ex-Haitian army officers get involved. "We do not want to go in, to associate ourselves with the paramilitary forces, because we do not want, in the long term, that there will be a backlash, in terms of death squads and things like that. If you do not have control over the ethics of those organizations, anything that they do wrong could harm the government," he said. "That is why we have told them, and we are still saying, they are not welcome."
Bernard Gousse says more police recruiting is under way, and international support is in place to reinforce Haiti's police. He says he is confident Haiti's police will eventually be able assert their authority. Most Haitians hope he is right, fearing violence could spiral out of control, if Haiti's police are unable eventually to disarm the forces that threaten Haiti's stability from all sides.