Latin America File: Eyes on Haiti, but watch its backyard

THE EYES of the world are on Haiti, which faces the threat of a US-led military intervention, but President Bill Clinton's contingency planning may be complicated by unrest in Haiti's neighbour, the Dominican Republic.

While life in Haiti remained relatively normal last week - no more than the usual smattering of bound and bullet-riddled bodies found at dawn, a senator shot, people queuing for US visas beaten up by thugs, journalists threatened with jail - the Dominican Republic, which takes up the eastern side of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, was bubbling with street violence. Haiti's military leaders could hardly have asked for a better diversion.

The trouble started when the Central Election Board declared President Joaquin Balaguer, 87, winner of the 16 May elections. He had prevailed by 22,000 votes, or 1 per cent, over Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, the popular mayor of the capital, Santo Domingo. Mr Pena Gomez called the decision illegal and 'the most scandalous fraud in 30 years'. In the Dominican Republic, where Mr Balaguer has ruled for most of the last three decades with a remarkable electoral sleight of hand, that was saying something.

Students blocked streets of the capital, police responded with tear-gas, one demonstrator was shot and wounded and left-wingers called a general strike for next Tuesday and Wednesday.

A US State Department spokesman suggested the Dominican Republic 'take immediate measures' to organise new elections.

There was, of course, no suggestion that the US would have to send the Marines into Santo Domingo, as it did in 1965, but the unrest was hardly the ideal backdrop for American generals who will at least have to neutralise the Haiti-Dominican border in the event of an intervention in the former.

Pragmatically enough, shortly before suggesting that Mr Balaguer had stolen the election, the US made a deal with him under which American troops and military helicopters will patrol the Haitian border.

Ostensibly, the US troops are to stop fuel being smuggled into Haiti in violation of a United Nations embargo. But it will not have escaped the notice of the US- trained Haitian military rulers that the Americans now have a useful frontline presence in the event of an invasion.

The land border would have been the obvious escape route for the Haitian military chiefs, unlikely to stand and fight if the US Marines wade ashore at Port-au- Prince.

Mr Clinton still faces domestic and external opposition to a Haiti invasion. Venezuela and Panama were among Latin American nations trying to find a last-ditch peaceful solution this week. Haiti's military chief, General Raoul Cedras, said he would listen to any visiting delegation but showed no sign of backing down. Opposition to an invasion is perhaps strongest in Mexico and Brazil.

At least to non-Americans, there was something slightly nauseous about the insistence by the US Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole, that Haiti 'isn't worth a single American life'. Nor, by that token, was Somalia. Nor Rwanda.

If Mr Dole believes you can't compare aid operations with an invasion to restore an elected leader, he is missing the point. Ousting the Duvalier clones and thugs who have trampled the majority back into a state worse than slavery is effectively that - an aid operation. Haitians are caught between starvation and murder. They must be freed, and fed.

PERU'S President Alberto Fujimori has until Tuesday to call presidential elections for next April. There is little doubt he will run again himself - otherwise why would he have bothered rewriting the constitution to allow him to do so - but his popularity faces a new threat: the former UN secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, is expected to announce his candidacy.

A recent opinion poll showed Mr Fujimori would lead Mr Perez de Cuellar by 45 percentage points to 23. But the latter, who has lived in Paris since retiring from the UN in 1991, believes his fulltime return to his homeland and 40 years of diplomatic skills could swing the balance in his favour.