US troops ready for Haiti role

  • @indyworld
THE FIRST contingent of 600 US troops arrive in Haiti in the next 48 hours to support the transition from military to civilian rule. To get them there the White House had to crush objections by the Pentagon based on fears that violence in Haiti is worsening. The military chief, General Raoul Cedras, and Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Francois, chief of police of Port-au- Prince, show little sign of making way for the government they overthrew two years ago.

They are, on the contrary, almost certainly orchestrating the attacks by death squads on ministers and supporters of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide, the Catholic priest elected in 1990 whom they are meant to restore to power when he returns to Haiti on 30 October. In the last week alone, gunmen belonging to the auxiliary paramilitary police have tried to kill two of Fr Aristide's leading supporters.

There is little attempt to hide who is doing the killing. The gunmen, known in the capital as attaches, are the descendants of the Tontons Macoutes. They control neighbourhoods by terror, identifying opponents who are killed, tortured or forced - as were 200,000 Haitians - to flee.

'We do not have an army but a gang,' said Jean-Claude Bajeux, a human rights organiser who survived an assassination attempt last week. 'Six years after Jean-Claude (Duvalier) left, we realise that the Macoutes are alive and well.'

The killers flaunt their links with the government. On Thursday attaches shut down Port-au- Prince and the countryside in a strike enforced at gunpoint. Five hundred marched past army headquarters calling on officers, who waved back, not to step down.

'Experience shows that the military, including the paramilitary attaches, are much better organised than people imagine,' says a UN official with long experience of Haiti. He points out that in the presidential election in 1990, when Fr Aristide was elected, there were no violent incidents because the military tried not to antagonise international observers.

They are no longer trying very hard. Under the Governor's Island accord, signed in July, Gen Cedras should resign on 15 October. Col Francois was to transfer abroad. They may still do so, but death squads have killed more than 100 people in the past two months with the intention of keeping real power in their hands.

In theory, the arrival of 600 US soldiers - a further 700 UN police are also promised - will calm the situation. The soldiers will be engineers and training officers, their duty to build roads and bridges and help create a new Haitian army split off from the police. Canadian Mounties and French Gendarmes are in Haiti to train the police.

The Governor's Island deal all looked good to the US and UN dipomats who designed the accord. The Clinton administration, fearing a fresh wave of Haitian refugees, wanted to restore President Aristide. The UN Security Council was pressuring the Haitian elite with an oil embargo, and there was the prospect of international aid if the military stepped aside.

Perhaps Gen Cedras and Col Francois never intended to go. Diplomats do not doubt they are trying to sabotage the agreement. Gen Cedras went to the High Court last week to keep in power a chief justice appointed by the military. Another pro-Ariside official was forced with a gun at his head to drink sewer water from the gutter.

Late in the day the Pentagon began to express reservations about going into Haiti; at the very moment the State Department was trying to convince the Haitian military that Washington is serious about the return of Fr Aristide, the Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, suggested that US troops remain on board ship off the coast of Haiti.

The White House overruled the Pentagon, but Gen Cedras has probably taken heart from fresh evidence of the shakiness of the US commitment. He will also know that US troop losses in Somalia have damped enthusiasm in Washington for any commitment of troops to UN operations. Last- minute doubts in the Pentagon will have reinforced the belief of Gen Cedras and Col Francois that they still have much to play for.