Haiti pact tested as the exiles come home

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ACROSS Haiti, officials opposed to the military government which seized power in 1991 are returning to office after three years in hiding or exile. In Jacmel, a pretty town of 16,000 on a bay on the south coast, a burly fisherman called Claudy Crann is due to return as mayor today after three years on the run in Port- au-Prince.

It will be a testing moment for the transition to civilian rule in Jacmel. Mr Cran has a long record of dissent. He was held in the infamous Fort Dimanche under the Duvalier regime in the seventies, then went into exile in Canada. He was sent back to Haiti after throwing a Haitian envoy through a second-floor window during an occupation of a consulate.

The return of Mr Crann will change the balance of power in the town in favour of supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the president overthrown by the military in 1991. If he is attacked by the paramilitary attaches loyal to the old regime, the Aristide supporters are likely to respond in kind.

For the moment, the balance of power in the town is held by 12 members of the US Special Forces led by Major Horatio Schwalm, who said: 'We are the stabilisers until Aristide returns.' He admits his little force is walking a knife's edge and would say nothing which might offend the Haitian army.

His men are a little more forthcoming. When they arrived they took over barracks manned in theory by 270 Haitian soldiers, though the real number was probably 150. The US soldiers confiscated their weapons and persuaded their commander to detain two of his men allegedly responsible for several murders.

By eliminating the army, power swung towards the pro- Aristide forces. But the officials with whom the Americans were dealing largely belonged to the pro-military Fraph organisation, which is associated with the death- squads. 'Everybody who is anybody in this town is Fraph and we can't work without them,' said a sergeant.

A few days after the Americans had disarmed the garrison, they thought the soldiers might be lynched without their guns. An American soldier said: 'We tried to give them back their guns but some of them didn't want this because they were afraid that the people would go after them.' By now only 75 to 100 soldiers were turning up for work. 'They were confused,' said one American, 'but not as confused as we were.'

Outwardly Jacmel is somnolent and decayed but there is an undercurrent of fear. A boy looking down from a wall beside the American compound said: 'The attaches have only hidden their weapons and gone into the countryside.' For the moment the Americans hold the real power. But in the long term, says Major Schwalm, the only thing that will stop the attaches coming back 'will be a government with grassroots support'.

In Jacmel the symbol of such a government is Mr Crann. So far the transition to civilian rule in Haiti has been largely peaceful. But Fraph and the attaches have a long tradition of assassinating elected officials. If Mayor Crann and others like him are killed, people are likely to lynch the supporters of the military regime whom they have hitherto been handing over to the Americans.

(Photograph omitted)