Haitian prime minister negotiates a delicate security balance

Latortue looks to reconcile nation's rich with its poor

October 31, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PETIONVILLE, Haiti - In crisp new camouflage uniforms, automatic rifles at the ready, militia members from the disbanded Haitian army rumble out of their hilltop villa compound in a daily show of force to comfort the elite and intimidate armed radicals paralyzing the capital below.

Five miles downhill, in the most desperate neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, the army of the slums trains its own weapons and anger on government and commerce. For three weeks, the gunmen have been sniping at port workers, police and United Nations peacekeepers, taking aim at any semblance of order eight months after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country on a U.S.-chartered jet.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue sits halfway between the two forces, at least geographically. He calls himself the man in the middle.

The 70-year-old former U.N. official has been asked to accomplish what has eluded every leader before him: Reconcile Haiti's rich with its poor, its powerful with the deprived.

Latortue's calls for national reconciliation and dialogue with the remnants of Aristide's Lavalas Party have infuriated the business community, whose shops and factories are being strangled by the daily mayhem of the Lavalas-aligned gunmen, known as chimeres.

His moves to reintegrate soldiers demobilized by Aristide 10 years ago have incensed the few Lavalas figures trying to carry on the party's social mission. They accuse him of empowering a corrupt force that deposed Aristide in a 1991 coup bankrolled by the industrial kingpins who, then as now, seek to call the shots in Haiti.

In an interview at the hillside mansion that houses his office, Latortue accused Aristide of orchestrating the disruptions from his exile in South Africa. He expressed frustration with Haitians of all political walks who are unprepared to compromise for the sake of peace. And he obliquely criticized the U.S. government for pulling out its troops before the job of stabilization was done.

Most forcefully, though, Latortue repeated the mantra he chants daily in radio interviews and public appearances: that his sole aim was to break Haiti out of its history of one extreme replacing another. For 200 years, since slaves overthrew their French colonial masters, dictators and demagogues have alternated at the national helm, mostly through coups and flawed elections, each newcomer exacting revenge against the supporters of the departed.

"Nobody wants to accept that there's a government in Haiti that doesn't want to stay in power," Latortue said, noting that none of the dozen Cabinet members serving in his interim government is eligible to run for office when elections are to be held late next year.

Although he is criticized from all directions, the prime minister - chosen by a panel comprising a Lavalas politician, an opposition figure and the senior U.N. official in Haiti - brushes off the scorn as political posturing. "I don't take pressure from anybody," he said. "I know I'm not persecuting [Lavalas], and to those who say I should go arrest everyone from the former government, that is not my style."

Latortue contends he is maintaining a delicate security balance.

He declined to rule out a crackdown by the former army troops, apparently hoping the mere threat of that action would deter the street gangs he was reluctant to antagonize with a direct confrontation. He also defended the soldiers' right to recover their jobs and pensions.

"They are citizens of Haiti. They have a skill that can be used for the benefit of the country," he said. "The decision to demobilize the army was illegal." The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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