Aristide struggles to assert authority

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ON WALLS all over Port-au- Prince people have been painting chickens, 10 times their natural size, with a hand, usually decorated with the US flag, inserting an egg back into the chicken. The explanation for this strange mural is that a senior supporter of the ousted military regime once said that Jean-Bertrand Aristide could no more return to Haiti as president than an egg could be put back into a chicken after it was laid.

Although President Aristide did return in triumph to the capital on Saturday, he is having difficulty asserting his authority because he has no army, civil service nor money.

Yesterday he was giving priority to persuading the US to disarm supporters of the outgoing regime, and making sure the remodelled Haitian army and police are under his control.

In his first hours home, the President had difficulty even making an international telephone call. Also, American security advisers strongly urged him against attending Mass, because they could not guarantee his safety in church. Aristide officials are worried by the weapons still in the hands of the paramilitary supporters of the old regime, many of whom have gone into hiding; the number of guns still held by them could be more than 50,000. Despite searches, US forces have so far confiscated only 4,000 guns. In the early summer, the military government distributed some 1,000 extra automatic weapons, such as M-16s, to its most loyal supporters.

The problem for the President is that his only real instrument of government is the American occupation force that he must persuade to do his bidding.

There is tension between President Aristide's team and US officials over the shape of the new Haitian army and police, which are to be separated for the first time. According to some sources, the US would like the army commander, General Jean-Claude Duperval, who replaced Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras last week, to stay on. But this is being resisted by President Aristide, who wants to appoint his own commander.

It is unlikely that the US will insist on General Duperval, who earlier this year was named in a leaked Justice Department memo as being under investigation for involvement in the drugs trade. Other controversies revolve around the size of the new military force, with President Aristide wanting it to number only about 1,500, while the US wants a larger body of men. The police force may number anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000.

At the heart of the controversy is the fear by the new Haitian government that the US embassy will seek - as it has done in the past - to use the armed forces as a counter- balance to the civilian government. But a Haitian military force loyal to President Aristide is needed to fill the present power vacuum. An Aristide official said that the so-called Chefs de Sections, some 550 of whom rule rural Haiti like medieval lords, are a totally illegal body, but there is no military force available to displace them. He insisted that President Aristide would have the final say in naming new police and army officers.

(Photograph omitted) When sheriff rides in, page 16