The political crisis in Haiti reached a boiling point this week as violence by opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide intensified, particularly in the northern part of the country, while right-wing elements in the capital stepped up their calls for Aristide to resign.

In Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, armed gangs with links to the former “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime and right-wing paramilitary elements roamed the streets, burning police stations and other government buildings, and intimidating supporters of the constitutionally-elected president. As of Feb. 16, of the 30 persons killed in Gonaives, 21 were policemen.

Louis-Jodel Chamblain, the former head of Haiti’s dreaded army death squads in the 1980s and later the leader of the notorious Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, resurfaced in Gonaives with a retinue of at least 20 commandos. FRAPH killed and maimed thousands of Haitian democrats and progressives in the early ’90s.

Similarly, Guy Philippe, a former police chief who fled to the Dominican Republic after an attempted coup against President Aristide in 2002, was also spotted in the city, urging rebels to prepare for a showdown with the government.

A motley assortment of other rightist elements, including the “Artibonite Resistance Front” (formerly known as the Cannibal Army) and “Force 86,” led by Jean Tatoune, the architect of the anti-Aristide Raboteau massacre in 1994, have also emerged in Gonaives, St. Marc, Trou du Nord and other northern cities and towns, vowing to bring down the government.

In parallel with these shock troops of the anti-government rebellion, other forces have stepped up pressure on Aristide to resign. In Port-au-Prince, the capital city, opposition leaders include millionaire businessman Andre Apaid, a big factory owner and head of the “Group of 184,” and leaders of the center-right “Democratic Convergence.” Apaid owns 15 factories in Haiti, including several sweatshops, and allegedly carries a U.S. passport. The mass media is also dominated by anti-Aristide elements.

Opposition forces know they cannot win power through democratic elections, and have therefore repeatedly rejected the government’s call to participate in forthcoming parliamentary contests. They also know that the vast majority of the Haitian people reject their brand of rightist politics.

Hundreds of thousands of Aristide’s supporters rallied in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 7, just as they did on the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence on Jan. 1. They did so despite the fact that Haiti remains the poorest country in the hemisphere, and despite some of Aristide’s painful concessions to the dictates of International Monetary Fund.

The other side of the coin is that under Aristide, the Haitian government has doubled the minimum wage from 36 to 70 gourdes (about $1.67) per day, built more schools between 1994 and 2000 than in the previous 190 years, and increased public investments in agriculture, health care and child welfare. And all this despite a continuing embargo of financial assistance from the U.S., the IMF and the World Bank.

The apparently concerted activities of the paramilitary shock troops and the political maneuvers of the big business-linked opposition elements in the capital, combined with a recent statement by U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher that Haiti’s future may include “changes in Aristide’s position,” have prompted some observers to charge a U.S.-backed coup is under way.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who visited Haiti recently, told Secretary of State Colin Powell in a Feb. 12 letter, “There is a violent coup d’état in the making, and it appears that the United States is aiding and abetting the attempt to violently topple the Aristide government. With all due respect, this looks like ‘regime change.’”

Similarly, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has said, “This is clearly an attempt at a power grab. … It is my belief that Andre Apaid is attempting to instigate a bloodbath in Haiti and then blame the government for the resulting disaster in the belief that the U.S. will aid the so-called protesters against President Aristide.” Waters called on the U.S. to cease its support for Apaid and his allies, and to respect the Haitian government’s efforts to defend the rule of constitutional law.

The author can be reached at here for Spanish text