The deadly game of chicken that passes for politics in Haiti is reaching new levels of tension as military leaders prepare their last efforts to prevent the return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
With a month to go before Aristide’s scheduled return from exile, the Haitian military, led by the army commander in chief, Gen. Raoul Cedras, and Port-au-Prince Police Chief Michel-Joseph Francois, is combining a strategy of political delay and bloody terror in hopes of forcing the United States and the United Nations to postpone or cancel the president’s Oct. 30 restoration, according to Haitian experts.
Diplomats insist that will not happen, but they also agree that the next week “will be crucial.”
What has them worried are reports circulating over the last week that gangs of anti-Aristide thugs are being armed and organized by the military and Haitian police, particularly under the command of Francois, to carry out a long weekend of widespread violence.
The motive for the anticipated attacks, which would coincide with the second anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1991, coup against Aristide, “is to create such havoc and instability that Aristide can’t be brought back, to convince the world that only the army can maintain control here,” a Haitian political expert said.
While rumors are a part of daily Haitian life, these reports are given serious credibility by many diplomats and other experts.
“We think the process is on track” toward Aristide’s return, one diplomat said. “But this is a very dangerous and crucial time, and there is no sign of Cedras or Francois packing their bags. I think they’ll do whatever they can to stay.”
Under an agreement signed in New York in early July by Aristide and Cedras, most of the high military and police command, including Cedras and Francois, are to resign by Oct. 15. “We have lots of information of attaches being armed,” said a senior diplomat here, referring to the name given civilians who operate as an unofficial but murderous branch of the police.
“They have been meeting regularly with Michel Francois and have been more visibly aggressive and violent,” he said.
Some attaches operating openly with the police were identified as the killers two weeks ago of a key Aristide supporter, Antoine Ismery. Beyond his death, international human rights officials say well over 100 murders have been carried out since July, most of them clearly political or designed to create a climate of fear.
“Francois is getting bolder and getting away with murder, literally,” said one well-informed Haitian political observer of the police chief, who was publicly branded a killer earlier this month by Dante Caputo, the chief U.N. envoy here.
Under the New York agreement, the army and police are to be separated and headed by new, civilian-appointed officers. In turn, the military involved in the anti-Aristide coup and the resulting two years of repression are to receive an amnesty.
At the same time, about 600 U.S. soldiers, mostly road builders and engineers, and 570 international police are to arrive to train the new army and police forces.
Francois has denied that the New York accord even applies to him, and he said he would defy an order from Cedras to resign if it came from “external pressure.”
Cedras and Francois also claim that Aristide himself is violating the agreement by not issuing a public announcement of their amnesty. They also point to the failure of the Haitian Parliament to pass legislation extending the amnesty to cover non-political crimes by the military and to authorize the police-army split.
“That is particularly galling,” said one political expert, “since Francois has been meeting regularly with legislators and paying them to hold off the votes.”
One additional--and to pro-Aristide forces, frightening--development has been Francois’ recruitment of the still powerful followers of the Duvalier family that ruled Haiti for more than 30 bloody years.
“These people think they can get back in control,” said a Haitian business leader assessing public statements by Duvalierist leaders that they will do whatever is necessary to prevent Aristide’s return.
According to Evans Paul, the pro-Aristide mayor of Port-au-Prince, the threats of weekend violence are not as serious as some others believe, but they do not need to be.
“They are using disinformation about the violence to create fear and uncertainty and to make people think they are in control,” he said.
Adding to the fear and concern is the timing of the threats because there is no real counterforce to Francois and his allies. “If they don’t act now,” said one involved diplomat, “it will be too late.”
Under the New York accords, it will be well into October before large numbers of American troops and an international police force deploy.
Although the American troops are under orders to withdraw if attacked, and the international police force will carry only pistols and are prohibited from preventing crimes, it is hoped that their presence alone will deter more military supported violence.
Meanwhile, the threats, real or not, are having serious effects, sending thousands running from the capital and leaving diplomats frozen by uncertainty and powerlessness.
The capital’s bus terminals are jammed with people fleeing to the country. Even the families of known attaches involved in previous anti-Aristide violence have been seen leaving Port-au-Prince.