Haitians take to boats: Sanctions will cost 8,000 jobs but are unlikely to force military regime from power

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The Independent Online
IN THE colonial pavilion that is the military's headquarters in Port-au-Prince, with buckled balconies and leaking roof, our enquiries are met with sarcasm. Is it possible that the general will leave after all? 'Yes. My suitcases are in there,' the officer replies with a sly laugh. 'We are going to find new lives in Asia. Yes, that's where we'll go. What do you think?'

It was probably futile to imagine that the threat of new United Nations sanctions would displace the military regime that has ruled here since ousting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two-and-a-half years ago.

For most Haitians the imposition of the embargo, from midnight last night, represents merely another inevitable step in their journey of isolation and deprivation. The sanctions, if enforced, will be much harsher than before. All export activity is to cease from today, and only basic foodstuffs, medicines and cooking fuel will be exempt.

One immediate consequence will be the closure of the last manufacturing operations here and the loss of an estimated 8,000 jobs. But US officials privately doubt that the sanctions will force out the military leaders, army commander Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras and the chief of police, Lieutenant-General Michel Francois.

In the meantime, the appalling conditions for the poorest masses, many crowded in the squalid shacks of Cite Soleil on the edge of the capital, can only intensify. And there are warning signs of an imminent exodus of boat people, who will try to flee to Florida.

'Everybody is going to be on a boat and going to Miami - Normandy will seem like a small landing compared to what is going to happen there,' predicts Jean Marie Nouaisser, director of World-Tex, which until Friday operated Haiti's largest clothing factory.

In a huge hangar containing more than 600 sewing machines, Haitian women are paid 30 cents an hour to stitch T-shirts and trainer suits for sale in America. On Friday, Mr Nouaisser told everyone that they no longer had a job. 'They're not going to have any food to eat, that's the bottom line,' he said. 'They're going to starve - they don't have anything after their job.'

Every day last week, cutters of the US Coast Guard steamed into port here with another load of refugees intercepted on rickety vessels at sea. On Friday, one cutter could barely find a spot to berth at the normally deserted dock as rusty freighters crowded to deliver and receive their final cargoes before the embargo came into effect.

Eventually the cutter disgorged another 148 Haitians found on a single boat in the waters between Haiti and Cuba. By the afternoon, nine had been arrested by the police for interrogation; 15 were making formal requests for asylum. The others were given dollars 20 each by the Red Cross to return home; in the past week more than 1,000 have been repatriated in this way.

The threat of an exodus lies at the heart of President Clinton's dilemma over Haiti. An unstaunched flow of refugees to Florida would cause him grave political damage in that state. But to deflect criticism of unfair treatment of the boat people, he has promised to end the practice of automatic repatriation. Screening is to begin at sea on a 700-passenger cruise ship leased from Ukraine.

As the crisis worsens, so the temptation for Mr Clinton to order an invasion will surely grow. Speculation about a full- scale intervention will be spurred by the leak of a US Justice Department document alleging direct involvement of 14 Haitian senior officers, including General Francois, in cocaine smuggling to the US. It has not been forgotten that President Bush seized on allegations of narcotics trafficking by Manuel Noriega to justify the invasion of Panama in 1989.

Meanwhile, reports of brutal human rights abuses accumulate, increasing the pressure on Mr Clinton to act. They are committed, according to human rights observers, by the military itself, by the police and above all by the new and feared right-wing organisation, Fraph (The Front for Advancement and Progress in Haiti), a reincarnation of the notorious Tontons Macoute who silenced all opposition during the 30-year reign of the Duvalier family.

Mathieu Saint Cyr is a 'coordonnateur' for Fraph in the Cite Soleil slums. In an interview outside his 'office' - an abandoned foodstore in an unpaved side-street, cluttered with carcasses of old cars and foraging pigs and goats - he defended the organisation. Leaning into my car window, his gun visible beneath a brightly coloured shirt, he accused the media of misrepresentation.

'You know, there are regular citizens who respect the laws of the republic,' he said. 'They have no problem with the military, and we in the Fraph respect the laws of the republic. But then, there are the irregular people also . . .' For now, the military seems content to allow the imposition of sanctions to pass without inflammatory comment. But 10 days ago, the regime appeared almost to taunt Washington by installing a new President, 81- year-old Emile Jonassaint, in place of the exiled Father Aristide. Mr Jonassaint subsequently declared himself acting Prime Minister also, in place of Robert Malval, who, despite resigning most of his duties last December, is still considered by the international community to be the legal prime minister.

Mr Malval holds out some hope that, without for military intervention, the political advantage will slip away from General Cedras. He believes that the business community will not long tolerate a complete manufacturing shutdown, and that in installing Mr Jonassaint, General Cedras made a serious misjudgement. 'I think that many people, who are not even Aristide backers, will drift away from the army,' he said.

But others believe that the sanctions will further enrich them. 'It's not going to hurt the military for sure,' says Mr Nouaisser. 'They have plenty of money, and the more you have the embargo, the more money they have.' He dismisses the notion that businessmen can pressure the regime. 'No one can pressure them. They have the guns. I have no guns. That's it.'

(Photograph omitted)