US is losing patience with exiled Aristide

THE US, despairing of ousting Haiti's military regime, is distancing itself from the exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom it tried to restore to power in October. The refusal of Fr Aristide to allow his supporters to attend a conference - aimed at sharing power with the military - in Haiti has increased US impatience.

On his side Fr Aristide, a left-wing priest overthrown in a coup in 1991, fears that the US will dump him in order to find a more pliable leader willing to compromise with General Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army commander. US frustration increased at the weekend when Robert Malval, the prime minister, resigned, telling the New York Times that Fr Aristide had 'a serious ego problem'. He added: 'The country is stuck between a man who refuses to resign and a man who has made a choice to remain abroad as a sort of flag bearer, a mythic symbol.'

Mr Malval said that Fr Aristide had come to represent 'Haitians from Miami to Montreal' and not those in Haiti. The US government and the exiled Haitian leader, elected with two thirds of the vote in 1990, have always made an odd couple. Ostensibly united in wanting to restore democracy to the island, they have always viewed each other with suspicion. This deepened with the failure of the US-brokered Governor's Island agreement to put Fr Aristide back in power on 30 October.

The attempt to persuade General Cedras to leave power peacefully was always going to be difficult but the administration exacerbated its problems by divisions in Washington. A CIA officer, in evidence subsequently proved to be flawed, testified before Congress that Fr Aristide had serious mental problems. The Pentagon let it be known that it was against sending troops to Haiti in a peace-keeping role.

In Washington Fr Aristide, apparently relying on the advice of expensive lobbyists, has failed to win friends in the administration and the press. Both are suspicious of his radicalism but he has also failed to give a clear picture of what he wants and how he intends to get it. Above all Mr Aristide fears that a compromise plan to replace the military will marginalise him and postpone his return.

The White House wants to downplay Haiti, where its policies publicly failed in October, but it also cannot discard Fr Aristide whatever its frustrations with his intransigence. Even if he was to offer to share power with the Haitian military it is by no means clear that it would share power with him.

At a meeting on Monday with the Friends of Haiti - the US, France, Canada and Venezuela - Fr Aristide rejected an appeal to reconsider his opposition to talks with the military leaders, saying: 'The current conditions of insecurity in Haiti will not allow for a national conference at this time.' The most he would agree to was wide-ranging talks after his return to Haiti.