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NEWS ANALYSIS : Haitians Find Courage to Plot Military’s Downfall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A motley group of Haitian politicians met recently at the Holiday Inn here. Ranging from Communists to fascist wanna-bes, they came together with the idea of forcing the downfall of Haiti’s militarily imposed government.

Overcoming, at least for that afternoon, their often vicious differences, they outlined a plan of demonstrations and civil disobedience aimed at destabilizing the country so much that the current regime would step down.

What emboldened these usually timid actors to move beyond talk was the arrival a few days earlier of a vanguard of U.N. human rights observers.

That mission represents to many diplomats and Haitian experts yet another crossroads in this tiny, impoverished and star-crossed nation’s disaster-ridden effort to negotiate a bloodless end to its seemingly infinite political crisis.

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It is, in the minds of many diplomats and Haitian experts, the last and best chance for settling the year-and-a-half-old crisis that has pulverized a nascent democracy and further impoverished what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest economy.

The United Nations’ goal is to deploy human rights observer teams throughout Haiti to establish an atmosphere calm and secure enough for political negotiations aimed at restoring democracy and ending the exile of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who was ousted by the military in 1991.

Paradoxically, that effort to open a political space for opponents of the dictatorial regime may lead to the very instability that the United Nations says it wants to avoid.

With its objective of provoking a showdown, the plan that emerged from the Holiday Inn meeting would likely result in violence, according to most observers, because the military cannot permit protests without losing its grip on power.

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In fact, violence seems to be the purpose of at least some of the anti-government forces. “They don’t want negotiations with this government,” one political expert said. “They think that if they force the issue, violence will break out, the U.N. observers will blame the government and the army, and some sort of international intervention will end their rule.”

Even some otherwise conservative business leaders see that as the most likely end to the U.N. effort, and, to at least one of them, it is a desired end.

“Some of us feel there can be no solution until Aristide sits down face-to-face with the army leaders, and that can’t happen until there is an explosion and this government is forced out and there is foreign intervention,” one businessman said.

Even if a bloody confrontation is avoided, diplomats and experts say the agreement that brought the U.N. observers faces the same obstacles that crushed the many previous efforts to end the crisis.

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Both democracy and Aristide’s government came to an end Sept. 30, 1991, when the military, backed by much of the country’s wealthy elite, used tanks and rifles to take power from Haiti’s first truly elected officials.

Since then, in what have turned out to be exercises of delay, duplicity and deception, plan after plan has failed because, as a leading political scientist said in an interview, “The political game here is a struggle to the death, with no sense of compromise, with no alternative or backup strategies to total victory.”

The current effort, he said, “has no better chance because the political forces are still trying to win a total victory and crush the others.”

The counter-arguments rest on little more than wishful thinking.

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One diplomat closely involved in every settlement attempt has reinflated his hopes even though he says that “you have every right to be as skeptical as can be.”

But, he said, the U.N. mission, which is being run in conjunction with the Organization of American States, is a first step in the creation of “a dynamic, a momentum that can’t be stopped.”

The tactic is to increase the number of observers from the current level of 56 to several hundred spread throughout the country. If all goes according to plan, the negotiations to bring back Aristide will begin in three to five months.

In that same time frame, the United Nations is to begin so-called institution-building--bringing in experts and materials to reform and strengthen Haiti’s judiciary and other institutions.

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That effort also includes creating a civilian-run police force and professionalizing the military, both of which will require large American financial contributions--as much as $50 million, according to some sources.

When asked why he thinks this plan will create an unstoppable momentum, the diplomat gave two reasons. First, he said, “everyone here is suffering from battle fatigue” and is thus more receptive to proposed solutions. Second, he said, is the promise that if all goes well, a trade embargo imposed on Haiti after the military coup will be eased.

“The agreement specifies that if the OAS-U.N. team is allowed to do its work,” the diplomat said, special U.N. envoy Dante Caputo “will recommend lifting the embargo gradually.”

To prevent the government from reneging along the way, the diplomat said, a freeze of millions of dollars of Haitian assets and escrow accounts in the United States will continue until Aristide’s return is guaranteed.

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The problem with this analysis is that the embargo has been so loosely observed and enforced that its effect on the government and its allies is almost nil.

“There is very little of it left to ease,” one economist said. “The military and the government want it lifted for prestige’s sake, but they can continue under current conditions if necessary.”

But the major failing of the current approach is the same defect that brought down all previous tries: the mistaken idea that anything can reverse the polarization that has crippled Haiti from its independence in 1804 up to the present.

“No one in the past was ever willing to give up either power or privilege,” one businessman said, “and I don’t see anyone doing it now.”

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Aristide, the businessman said, “doesn’t want to give up authority to the opposition by letting them name a prime minister; (de facto Prime Minister Marc) Bazin doesn’t want to let Aristide return because that means he’s out of office, and the military doesn’t want reforms or Aristide back because they lose power, privilege and money.”

Even the optimistic diplomat acknowledges that “the real issue will surface when negotiations begin on Aristide’s physical return.”

“The military cannot accept Aristide back,” said one businessman with close army contacts. “He represents to them mobs and disorder and a threat to their existence.”


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