Aristide keeps US guessing over elections

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When the Haitian President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, announced the other day that he was getting married, he left details somewhat up in the air. He did not say when, nor even to whom. And no one was quite sure whether he is still officially a Catholic priest and therefore an ineligible celibate.

The media quickly ascertained that his fiancee was Mildred Trouillot, a 33-year-old Haitian-American lawyer who had worked for him during three years of exile in the US. As for his clerical status, he is known to have asked the Vatican to release him from his vows after the Salesian order expelled him for political activism. But, as far as is known, he has not received an answer.

The ambiguity of his engagement announcement was typical of the 42-year- old former radical priest who swept to power in 1990, was forced into exile by a military coup a year later and was reinstated last October courtesy of a peaceful US military intervention.

Other ambiguities in his recent public comments have raised questions as to whether presidential elections will take place on Sunday week as scheduled, and whether he will hand over power as promised on 7 February next year. Under the constitution, he cannot run for a consecutive term and is not a candidate on 17 December. But he has kept both Haiti and the Clinton administration guessing.

He has not publicly endorsed his Lavalas (Avalanche) party's candidate, Rene Preval, and signs of an election campaign are minimal in Port-au- Prince.

Many of Mr Aristide's supporters are clamouring for him to complete the three years of his term he missed while exiled because of the 1991 coup. "We want Aristide for ever," say graffiti in Port-au-Prince. For President Bill Clinton, however, what has been billed as his "greatest foreign policy success" - the 1994 intervention which overthrew the Haitian military rulers - hinges on Mr Aristide handing over power. That was what "Operation Uphold Democracy" was all about.

With US forces headed for Bosnia and an election year looming, Mr Clinton is particularly keen on rounding off his Haitian success, and getting the remaining US troops home from the country soon. Any disruption in the Haitian election process could spark street violence and suck in the US troops, which would raise questions over their deployment in Bosnia.

Mr Aristide said this week that the elections would go ahead and he would stand down. But at the same time he criticised Washington for not disarming military-backed armed groups who oppose him, for delaying a vital aid package and for withholding documents captured from the Haitian military and para-military gunmen last year. Diplomats believe he is using his overwhelming popular support and the veiled threat of cancelling the elections as bargaining chips to get what he wants from the US.

"They prefer to retain the [aid] money. We would like the international community to keep its word," he said. "We want to protect democracy by disarming the assassins. I have spent the past year feeding my people with words, keeping the people at peace. Now they are withholding the aid and as a result economic refugees are leaving the country." He was referring to a surge in the number of Haitian "boat people" headed for Florida. His domestic critics believe Mr Aristide himself has "turned on the tap of boat people" as another bargaining chip to free US aid.

Millions of dollars of American and other international aid has been delayed because Mr Aristide has been slow to implement a privatisation programme he promised in return for the US intervention. The documents to which he referred were taken by US troops from Haitian military headquarters and the offices of the Fraph, the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, a para-military group which worked closely with the coup leaders and terrorised the population before the US intervention.

Mr Aristide believes the documents may reveal CIA activities against him before and during his term, and perhaps even in the 1991 coup.

The former Fraph leader Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, in jail in the US awaiting deportation to Haiti, said this week that he had been paid $700 (pounds 450) a month by the CIA - a fortune in Haiti - for several years and that the agency had been grooming him "maybe to be a successor" to Mr Aristide. The CIA, he alleged, "had its own agenda" in Haiti, trying to undermine Mr Aristide even as Mr Clinton's White House was supporting him and trying to restore him to power.