Aristide resigns and flees Haiti; U.S. sends Marines

Posted in United States , Other , Latin America | 01-Mar-04 | Author: Tim Weiner and Lydia Polgreen| Source: The New York Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the radical priest who became his country's first democratically elected president, resigned Sunday under intense pressure from the United States and the threat of an invasion of the capital by armed insurgents, fleeing by jet at dawn under heavy American guard.

President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of the U.S. Marines to the country as part of an "interim international force" to restore order.

Once hailed as the man who could deliver peace and freedom to the world's first black republic, Aristide saw his presidency crumble as he violently cracked down on political dissent and as armed rebels seized Haiti's north this month. The Bush administration shifted its policy this weekend from opposing regime change to strongly urging him to step down.

The chief justice of the Haitian Supreme Court, Boniface Alexandre, was sworn in as the head of a transitional government until elections in 2005, following a succession process that is outlined in Haiti's Constitution, and Prime Minister Yvon Neptune will retain his post until new elections are held.

In his letter of resignation, read at a news conference Sunday morning by Neptune, Aristide said he had chosen to resign to prevent further bloodshed in an armed uprising that has killed as many as 100 people and to ensure that the new government would conform with the Haitian Constitution.

"The Constitution is the guarantee of life and peace," he wrote in the letter, which was dated Saturday, Feb. 28. "It should not be drowned in the Haitian people's blood. This is why tonight, if it is my resignation that will prevent a blood bath, I accept to go with the hope that there will be life and not death. Life for everybody, death for nobody by respecting the Constitution and have it respected, Haiti will find life and peace."

James Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said that an international force consisting of security, humanitarian and administrative personnel "will rapidly be in Haiti" to help stabilize the country, which has been racked by violence since early this month. Widespread looting has left ports, shops and houses in several cities plundered.

In sending marines to Haiti, Bush said: "The government believes it is essential that Haiti have a hopeful future. This is the beginning of a new chapter. I would urge the people of Haiti to reject violence, to give this break from the past a chance to work. And the United States is prepared to help."

Haitian officials urged calm and promised a return of order, but little authority was in evidence Sunday on the capital's streets. Chaos ruled as news of Aristide's departure trickled out.

After several tense days of expecting a rebel attack, residents lined the streets, anxious for news of Aristide's fate. Near the airport, where a jet whisked the president away shortly after dawn, a man with a small radio pressed to his ear ran down the street shouting a question to anyone who would listen: "Is it confirmed? Is it confirmed?"

Near the National Palace, opponents of the president began to celebrate, dancing in the streets and weeping. They flashed three fingers in the air, a truncated version of the outstretched palm that the president's supporters use to signify their belief that he should be allowed to finish his five-year term, which was set to end in February 2006.

Mobs of armed young men soon converged on the palace, firing volleys of gunfire, seemingly at random, and thousands of looters poured onto the streets. Rioters torched a Texaco gas station, sending flames shooting skyward into the caldron of mountains surrounding the city, a black pall belching on the horizon.

Mobs began a methodical looting of every shop they could pry open, piling water jugs, fans and groceries onto wheelbarrows and carting them away.

Several bullet-riddled bodies were spotted around the city; the death toll was impossible to ascertain.

Aristide's departure, long sought by his political opponents, who rejected a power-sharing plan pushed by the United States that diplomats had hoped would allow the president to finish his term, was a stunning exit for a man who once seemed poised to deliver his long-suffering nation "peace in the mind, peace in the belly," as his campaign slogan promised.

He was felled by a small but resilient coalition of political opponents and a separate group of armed insurgents. The rebels, led by veterans of Haiti's army, which was disbanded by Aristide in retaliation for its role in a 1991 coup that removed him from power, had threatened to attack the capital unless he left power.

Hundreds of Haitians have tried to flee the violence in boats bound for Florida; most have been intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and shipped back to Haiti.

Aristide's fall was sudden. Barely 32 hours before he left, in his last address to the nation as president, he said, "I will be at my desk on Monday."

American policy toward Aristide shifted swiftly, too.

In July, Brian Dean Curran, then the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said, "The United States accepts President Aristide as the constitutional president of Haiti for his term of office ending in 2006."

The Bush administration decided in the past three days, as a senior administration official said Saturday, that "Aristide must go," regardless of his constitutional authority.

France, Haiti's colonizer, also had called for the president to step down.