A straitjacket awaits Aristide: Haiti's returning leader will not have the power to improve life in his poor country, says Patrick Cockburn

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THE agreement reached by former President Carter and his delegation in Port-au-Prince is a climbdown by the US will leave the Haitian army in substantial control of the political future of Haiti. The army commander, General Raoul Cedras, will step down, but the authority of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when he returns, will be very limited.

The situation is highly unstable. The agreement assumes that the army and President Aristide will co-operate. But the experience of Haiti since Baby Doc Duvalier fled in 1986 is that the army will cede power only as a tactical manoeuvre before seizing it back.

'I have a deep sense of foreboding because it (the agreement) may not restore a constitutional government with real authority,' says Ian Martin, former head of UN human rights monitors in Haiti. 'The military have preserved much of their political power. Cedras will stay in the country with his allies still in charge of the army.'

The biggest new player on the island will be the US army. Haitian soldiers and police are to receive five days' retraining. The US has been drawing up lists of those it believes were most closely involved in the killing of some 3,000 Aristide supporters since the coup in 1991. But a force of 3,000 will be retained from the 7,600-strong old armed forces which will, presumably, be in charge of disarming their former colleagues. 'When Aristide comes in on 15 October we expect the disarming to be done,' the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili, told reporters yesterday.

It may work but precedent is against it. President Clinton has made nothing so clear as his wish to keep troops only a short time in Haiti. This means that many members of the existing apparatus can lie low and re-emerge as US interest and military involvement are reduced. In addition, the United States has seldom had much success in dealing with countries like Haiti, Somalia or Lebanon where the government is weak and real authority, military and political, resides elsewhere.

American commentators have consistently emphasised that the Haitian army is a rag-tag force with a few rusty, armoured cars. But death squads do not need high technology. Five million out of the 6 million Haitians live in the countryside, where power is held by 565 chefs de section. In theory each has a couple of aides. In practice they each have a private army of up to several hundred men. In this semi-feudal system, they sustain themselves by small bribes and pay-offs, such as a small sum mulcted from a peasant who wants to sell his goat in the market.

It is true that President Aristide is immensely popular. Diplomats say that if he ran for election today he would gain more than the 67 per cent of the vote which he won in the presidential election in 1990. But he does not have an organisation. In so far as he has lieutenants on the island, they are well respected priests. But many of the others who supported him - such as the successful businessman Antoine Izmery, who was dragged out of church and shot - are dead.

In many respects the agreement reached on Sunday by Jimmy Carter resembles the Governor's Island accord agreed in New York in July last year. That also envisaged General Cedras and his chief lieutenants stepping down. It put a date on the return of President Aristide. But it was a diplomatic document that ignored what happened on the streets. A power-sharing government was chosen. But the Justice Minister, Guy Malary, was shot down within a hundred yards of his ministry, probably with the knowledge of Michel Francois, the Port-au-Prince police chief.

The Haitian leadership may be brutal - General Cedras is the son of a senior lieutenant of Papa Doc - but it is astute in assessing US policy. It is also well informed. The Army chief of staff, General Philippe Biamby, knew from his own sources within minutes that the US troop planes had taken off from Fort Bragg. The toughness and ability of the Haitian generals to engage in prolonged delaying tactics have been underestimated by President Clinton ever since he took office.

The intransigence shown by both the exiled President Aristide and General Cedras shares a common root. Haitians are deeply conscious that they were the first black republic to expel a colonial power, the French. It was from a Haitian port that Simon Bolivar sailed to free Latin America. Haitians' sense of identity - with their own language, religion, painting, music and cooking - is stronger than elsewhere in the Caribbean. It is that sense of national pride that underpins General Cedras's bravura and President Aristide's independence.

President Clinton tried to steer clear of the Haitian quagmire but again and again he was forced into greater involvement because the alternative was total humilitation. US efforts to patch together a compromise failed because the Americans underestimated the depth of divisions - greater than anywhere else in the western hemisphere - between rich and poor, black and coloured, military and civilian.

Haiti is also violent, even by Central American standards. This is not a recent development. The slave uprisings in 1793 destroyed the French plantation owners and ended slavery. But even today relations between rulers and ruled in Haiti resemble those between master and slave. Prisoners are casually beaten to death. Death squads cut off the faces of their victims with machetes.

In deciding what to do about Haiti, US policy makers have been obsessed with the vision of massive retaliation by President Aristide's supporters. Asked about an amnesty for the generals, an elderly priest said: 'We should fry them all in oil in a pan.' It is remarks like these that send nervous tremors through Petionville, the wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince, where the affluent residents often refer to themselves as the Morally Repugnant Elite, a name coined for them in the early Nineties by the then US ambassador.

They have a lot to lose. Even at the height of the United Nations embargo last month it was still possible to eat a meal of small oysters (caught off Haiti's south coast), lobster and steak at plush dinners in the villas of Petionville. But the mood at these dinners was anxious. Sometimes they would play tapes of a speech by President Aristide, delivered on the eve of the 1991 coup, in which he praised the practice of 'Pere Lebrun', the popular shorthand for lynching opponents by putting tyres soaked in petrol around their necks and setting them alight.

Their fears are probably exaggerated. In the villages and slums, ordinary Haitians have more urgent priorities than slaughtering the wealthy, such as finding food to stay alive. Most survive by eating the fruit from the banana trees that surround every hut in the countryside. In one village a man explained that he was trying to leave the country because his business, arranging cockfights, was being bankrupted by two groups of security men demanding bribes.

For such a man the immediate future may improve. His village will benefit from the lifting of sanctions and international aid. But a restored President Aristide will be able to make Haitians better off only by taking from the rich, and this they will resist. Even Aristide's friends in Washington may not remain loyal long. Old Central American hands believe it will not be long before the US embassy is back to its old tricks: attempting to curb a radical leader by using the threat of the military against him.

(Photograph omitted)