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Haiti’s New Leader Dragging Feet on Road to Democracy, Critics Say

Times Staff Writer

Just one year after armed thugs rampaged through polling places, shooting and hacking voters to death to derail what was to have been the country’s first free and fair election, Haiti’s military government under Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril is faltering on the road to a promised democracy, in the view of some political leaders and diplomats here.

“All of us are a bit concerned,” said Marc Bazin, a former World Bank economist who was one of the top four presidential candidates in the bloody Nov. 29, 1987 attempt to choose Haiti’s first civilian government since the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship ended in February, 1986.

“The question is, why is it so difficult for him (Avril) to advance the democratic agenda?” asked Bazin in an interview this week.

Words and Deeds

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“Since Sept. 17 there has been disillusion,” said a diplomat of several years experience here, referring to the day on which Avril’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, was ousted. “Avril’s public declarations have been what democratic forces here and foreigners, especially the Americans, like to hear, but his government hasn’t actually done anything to meet people’s expectations.”

Bazin and others, including leading human rights activist Jean-Jacques Honorat, complained that since taking power and winning worldwide praise for dismissing or retiring scores of army officers suspected of corruption, Avril has talked of ending violence and establishing democracy but has taken few significant steps to do either.

Random killings are almost as commonplace today as they were a year ago, when bands of Tontons Macoutes, the Duvalier regime’s outlawed private militia, roamed the streets of Port-au-Prince. One victim was Avril’s own brother-in-law.

In the countryside, foraging bands that in one case reportedly included uniformed soldiers have staged two massacres while raiding rural villages during the last three weeks, according to Honorat.

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The sound of automatic weapons on rapid fire shatters the silence of Port-au-Prince nightly. Yet the police, who are under army command, and the military seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Nighttime patrols of the capital city’s streets, routine under the Namphy regime, appear to have been suspended.

One explanation, given by a police official to a European aid worker here, is that the poorest country in the Western hemisphere is so short of funds that the police and army cannot afford the additional gasoline or the extra meals required by troops on nighttime anti-terrorism patrols.

Responsibility for the current wave of terrorism remains a mystery.

Army and police officers have said it is not being committed by known Duvalierists, according to diplomats. But at least some loyalists of the old dictatorship who were purged in the heady days after the enlisted men’s coup two months ago have returned to power.

Serge Brutus, the Duvalierist prefect of the country’s second-largest city, Gonaives, was officially reinstated two weeks ago after being forced out of office after the coup. According to Honorat, most of the Duvalierist provincial sheriffs who were ousted in September are now back in office.

After taking power following a coup d’etat organized by army enlisted men, Avril pledged to establish a “durable” and “irreversible” democracy.

One of his first steps was to open what appeared to be a sincere dialogue with the country’s political and social leaders. This action drew immediate supportive remarks from the United States and other aid-giving countries that had recoiled from the Namphy regime after the election massacres in November, 1987. U.S. officials still cite Avril’s much-publicized dialogue with civilian leaders as evidence that he is on the right track to earn a resumption of American aid after Congress reconvenes in January.

However, Bazin and others who were called in by Avril during the first two weeks after the coup to discuss a democratic future and an election timetable say the new military president has not spoken to them since.

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“It’s stretching a point to say that he is in dialogue with us,” said Bazin. “There has been no structured give-and-take.”

Since his conversations with the politicians and social leaders immediately after the coup, Bazin said, Avril’s only direct gesture to them has been to send each the draft of a proposed new election law, stressing that it is not final and asking for their comments and counter-suggestions.

The Avril draft envisages a series of four elections--municipal, provincial, legislative and presidential--over an unspecified period of time, supervised by an independent electoral commission of nine men, one to be named from each of the country’s nine provinces. Although the draft proposes no timetable, Avril indicated in his first talks with political leaders that he favors delaying elections for at least two years.

“Everyone is critical,” said a diplomat, “because appointing nine men from the provinces gives the executive too much influence over them. Furthermore, it disregards the electoral structure outlined in the Haitian constitution.

“We strongly disagree with the four-election approach,” said Bazin, speaking for the Entente Democratique, a coalition of most of the centrist democratic parties that contested the aborted 1987 election. “I don’t think anyone can muster the money and energy for four separate campaigns.”

Bazin, who said he favors elections by November next year, said there has been no indication yet if Avril intends to sit down with civilian leaders to discuss the proposed law.

“There is a question whether Avril is really serious about an election law or whether he’s just buying time with the politicians,” said a foreign diplomat. “Maybe he’s just given them something to play with while he gains time to do other things.”

While conceding the possibility that Avril may simply be stalling for time with such gestures of dialogue, Bazin said he still believed the general will eventually proceed toward fair elections.

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‘Benefit of the Doubt’

“He seems to be feeling pressure from a few quarters, and he is not going at the speed and with the clarity that some of us would like, but as of today I’m still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Bazin said.

At present, according to diplomats and business leaders, economic problems appear to be Avril’s main preoccupation. Without foreign aid, particularly from the United States, which cut off $65 million to $70 million of support a year ago, Haiti is broke. The government reportedly has been forced to print $70 million in currency just to meet payrolls and day-to-day costs, a move that devalued the street price of the Haitian gourde (officially 5 gourdes equal $1) by 32% in recent weeks.

Although the United States has released about $32.5 million in once-frozen indirect aid since Avril took power, according to the U.S. Embassy here, all of it is earmarked for such projects as health clinics, agriculture and roads. It does nothing, therefore, to ease the government’s payroll pressure or meet the high cost of maintaining army loyalty.

In seeming desperation two weeks ago, Avril called a number of businessmen to the presidential palace and asked them to lend the government $10 million to $15 million so that he could build housing for soldiers. The request reportedly fell flat.

“There’s not a businessman in this country who’s going to give the government $50,000 or $100,000 without knowing what’s coming next,” scoffed a leading merchant.

“It is a potentially dangerous situation,” said a diplomat. “Avril has to walk on a tightrope until February or March, when he hopes the U.S. Congress will agree to resume aid. If he loses his balance, the alternative is either a right-wing or left-wing coup from the army.”


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