A reluctant and suspicious Jean-Bertrand Aristide finally put his signature alongside that of army commander Raoul Cedras on Saturday on a U.N.-brokered agreement that sets in motion a democratic plan to restore Aristide as president of Haiti by Oct. 30.
After hours of delay, Aristide signed the agreement a little before 11 p.m. on Governors Island, the Coast Guard base in New York harbor off the tip of Manhattan that served as the site of the historic talks. Lt. Gen. Cedras, who ousted Aristide 21 months ago, had signed the agreement 11 hours earlier, shortly before leaving for Haiti.
Jean Casimir, Aristide’s ambassador to Washington, told reporters: “We have reached a great day in the history of the entire hemisphere and of Haiti.”
For much of the day, American and U.N. diplomats were fearful that Aristide would scuttle the agreement, ending seven days of talks with nothing to show for it.
Diplomats were so frustrated by Aristide’s continual delays and raising of new issues that the U.N. mediator, former Argentine Foreign Minister Dante Caputo, muttered to reporters in Spanish, “Aristide will have to answer to history. I’m fed up.”
But, under intense international pressure, Aristide changed his mind and sent word out from New York that he was coming to Governors Island to sign the agreement. But, even after he arrived, six hours after Cedras had signed, Aristide hesitated.
His aides said he was demanding a letter from Caputo guaranteeing his personal safety in Haiti and promising to keep U.N. sanctions in place if the plan for his return fails. Caputo reportedly was drawing up such a letter.
The accord was quickly dubbed “The Agreement of Governors Island.” If carried to a successful conclusion, it would mark an unprecedented moment in Latin American history: No other president has been restored to power peacefully after his ouster by a military coup.
The president’s advisers, however, made it clear that Aristide was still troubled by the agreement’s treatment of Cedras and other members of the Haitian military high command.
Under the terms of the agreement, Cedras has pledged to resign as commander and take early retirement from the army. But the agreement does not set an exact timetable for this, and Aristide evidently feels that Cedras plans to hang on to power until a few days before the return of Aristide.
On top of this, the Aristide camp said it felt betrayed by the agreement’s failure to provide for the dismissal from the army of all members of the high command. The agreement states that Aristide will appoint a new commander, who will in turn appoint a new high command “in accordance with the constitution.” This means that the dismissed high command will still retain some posts in the army.
“That was a shock to us,” said Robert White, a former American ambassador who is an adviser to Aristide.
But Lawrence Pezzullo, an American diplomat charged with trying to help fashion a solution to the Haitian crisis, disputed that White had any reason to feel shocked. He said all parties knew from the beginning of the negotiations on Governors Island that the high command would be transferred rather than dismissed.
“Aristide can reassign them,” Pezzullo noted. “He can send them anywhere in the world.”
Aristide’s advisers also seemed annoyed at the way Cedras had shown up in Caputo’s rooms at the Officer’s Club on the base, signed the agreement and left to catch a plane for Haiti without making any public comment. Aristide wanted him instead to meet some of his objections.
“If these negotiations are about the future of Haiti,” White said, “then we believe Gen. Cedras should stick around for a few more hours and finish the negotiations.”
But Aristide had steadfastly refused to meet with Cedras during the talks on Governors Island. And Caputo had fashioned his democracy plan after shuttling between the two camps and comparing their demands and needs.
The agreement lays down a sequence of events that would restore democratic government and Aristide by Oct. 30. But there is no timetable for these events other than the final deadline.
The process is expected to get under way this week with a meeting of all Haitian political parties, possibly in Washington. They have to decide on the makeup of the Parliament (now in dispute) and the process by which it would confirm a prime minister. An American diplomat said that everyone hopes the politicians will act quickly. “If they dither away their time, that’s their responsibility,” he said.
Aristide would then nominate a prime minister. Once that prime minister was confirmed, the United Nations and the Organization of American States, according to the agreement, would suspend but not end the international sanctions against Haiti that have crippled its economy and probably were the main force that persuaded Cedras to go to Governors Island and sign an agreement for Aristide’s return to power.
With an Aristide-appointed prime minister in office, and Cedras still army commander, the international community, including the United Nations and the United States, would start a program for modernizing the armed forces and establishing a new police force.
Aristide would then be required to issue an amnesty, possibly with parliamentary approval, for all officers who took part in the September, 1991, coup that threw him out of office.
The feared police chief of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Michel Francois, would then be replaced by a commander of the new police force.
At that stage, Cedras, according to the agreement, would “avail himself of his right to early retirement.”
On Oct. 30, Aristide would return to Haiti after an absence of more than two years. Although the agreement does not specifically say so, it is understood that sanctions would then be lifted.
The entire process, the agreement said, would be subject to “verification” by the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
An American diplomat stressed that the aim of the plan was not simply to set down a timetable for the return of Aristide. “The idea is to have the society living through a peaceful transition,” he said.
Aristide, a radical Catholic priest, was an outspoken critic of the long Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, and of subsequent transition governments. Expelled from his religious order for allegedly fomenting class violence, he ran for president in December, 1990, and won a landslide victory with strong support from Haiti’s poor.
Opponents accused him of violating constitutional rights while in office, and the military staged a coup to oust him seven months after he took office. In exile, he retained strong support among the poor, and the army repression of his followers since the coup has aroused worldwide condemnation.