Sceptical Aristide refuses to bless America's invasion force

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom the United States intends to restore to power in Haiti, is studiously avoiding taking sides over the US occupation of Haiti. After remaining silent over the agreement reached between Jimmy Carter, the former president, and the Haitian military leaders, he issued a statement yesterday insisting that he is Haiti's democratically elected leader.

He spent an unhappy week-end. 'There is no certain date for his return,' said Bill O'Neill of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. 'We have already seen what happened when his supporters in Port-au-Prince tried to hold a rally. The Haitian police beat them up and the US soldiers stood by. It won't be possible to hold democratic elections in this sort of atmosphere. No wonder he feels betrayed.'

The extent of the concessions made by Mr Carter, the former Chief of Staff, Colin Powell, and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, is only gradually sinking in. The amnesty for the death squads means it will be most difficult for Father Aristide's supporters to operate in public.

In his statement Fr Aristide said he intended to abide by the agreement he signed with General Cedras last year at Governor's Island in New York. In it the terms for an amnesty were more limited. There was a date set for Fr Aristide's return. The agreement collapsed because General Cedras reneged on it and launched an assassination campaign against Fr Aristide's supporters.

Mr Clinton refused to answer questions about Fr Aristide's statement. He told Congressional leaders that US troops were 'working in full co-operation' with the Haitian military. As a sop to Fr Aristide military officials were expected to meet him yesterday. 'I have a plan for our folks to go over there and meet with him today,' General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

Defenders of the agreement reached on Sunday night say the difference is that there will be 15,000 American soldiers on the island. But Mr O'Neill said in the first hours of the occupation US forces established friendly relations with Haiti's military establishment, boding ill for structural reforms. The American forces are giving a low priority to disarming attaches, officially sanctioned gunmen who control the streets.

In theory, US forces will be in Haiti for only a few months. They will be replaced by a United Nations force of 6,000, of which 2,000 will be American. But the UN has no wish to get involved in what it believes is a messy situation. One former UN official said it resembled the situation after the US intervention in Lebanon and Somalia. In both countries the US gravitated to one side in their civil wars, with disastrous results.

Fr Aristide has few cards to play. Invading Haiti was unpopular in the US. The deal struck by Mr Carter was greeted with enthusiasm in Congress. The House of Representatives, which would probably have condemned an invasion, passed a motion commending the effort to secure an accord. Voters favour the deal, but have reservations. The number approving the way President Clinton has handled Haiti has jumped from 35 per cent on 18 September to 51 per cent today, according to a USA Today/CNN poll. About 52 per cent approve of the deal and 32 per cent disapprove.

Mr Clinton may be storing up trouble for himself. The Black Caucus will try to ensure the power of the Haitian military is broken. But if Fr Aristide does return in November, he will be a lame-duck leader. He promised last week not to seek a second term, when his mandate expires in 1996. Elections planned for December will take place in an atmosphere of terror.

Given that neither the US nor the UN forces are likely to stay past that date, the Haitian military may try to delay reforms until international pressure relaxes in 18 months' time.