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Upheaval is latest in unstable nation

A policeman chased off a young boy who was part of a group looting a depot in the capital, Port-au-Prince, on Sunday. Pro-Aristide gangs fired into crowds, and inmates were freed from jails. -- Jaime Razuri / AFP/Getty Images
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Associated Press
March 1, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The sudden departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's first freely elected president in its 200 years of independence, was almost predictable in a nation that has seen more than 30 coups.

Over time, leading Haiti has been a terrible career choice. One president was poisoned, one was blown up in his palace, one was dismembered by a mob, nine fled, and six were overthrown.

At the end of the day, the ex-priest -- who ministered to slum-dwellers and was the hope of the hopeless in the hemisphere's poorest nation -- may have gotten off cheaply.

Life for Haiti's very poor never got better under Aristide despite perhaps unreasonably high expectations. Instead, Aristide empowered lawless elements who owed their dubious status to his indulgences. Many defended him, insisting to the last, as did Aristide, that the diminutive leader would hang on for two more years and finish his five-year term.

As many had before him, Aristide was riding a tiger. His departure statement said he would leave to prevent a bloodbath. But his flight triggered chaos across the capital city of 2 million.

Furious mobs of Aristide backers roamed downtown after his white executive jet flew off at about 6:45 a.m. Sunday, robbing cars and firing weapons. Inmates were freed from the National Penitentiary and several other jails around the country. Flaming barricades went up again.

With no army, a poorly armed police force in shreds amid a 3-week-old insurgency, and no government in a position to take charge, Haiti was speeding toward anarchy.

Whether interim President Boniface Alexandre, the Supreme Court chief justice, and Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, who is staying on, could persuade any crowds to stand down was an open question.

International forces, including some from the United States, were dispatched to Haiti to clean up the mess or at least to try to control it. It was the United States that sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide after his 1991 ouster in a coup d'etat.

The same country joined others in urging him to stand down, with critics accusing Aristide of having failed to help the poor, of condoning corruption and using gangs to intimidate and attack political opponents.

State radio played music after Aristide departed. State television was broadcasting soccer.

The last hint of lasting stability here was under Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who was thrown out in 1986, ending a dynasty his father started in the 1950s. It was shored up by the thuggish Ton Ton Macoute secret police and by suggestions that his father had powerful links to widely practiced Voodoo.

When Duvalier fled, looters ran wild, ransacking much of the capital and stripping Duvalier's mansion of everything including copper pipes and plumbing fixtures.

Baby Doc, last reported living in southern France, has not been heard from in some time.

There have been a dozen governments since, some repeaters and none of them very successful.


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