The Clinton Administration said Monday that it has received preliminary indications that Haiti's military rulers may be willing to step down in the face of increased U.S. pressure, but officials cautioned that no firm deal is yet in the works.
The disclosure was made by Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who told reporters traveling with him to Ottawa that Washington is "starting to get some signals" that Haitian military chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras realizes that his position is precarious and "might want to step down."
Although Perry did not elaborate, other U.S. officials cited a spate of recent developments, from signs of growing friction in the Haitian military to indications that the new military-backed government has been having difficulty putting together a Cabinet.
But Administration strategists, clearly taken aback by Perry's remarks, cautioned that any such signals are preliminary and "should by no means be seen as any evidence" that either Cedras or other military leaders are about to resign.
"We think it will require additional pressure before anything like that might occur," one key official suggested Monday.
The developments came as Haiti's new military-backed provisional president, Emile Jonassaint, named a new Cabinet on Monday, leaving the post of prime minister unfilled. Acting Prime Minister Robert Malval, who had headed Haiti's legally elected government, denounced the regime Monday as illegal.
In an act of defiance that broke a six-month silence, Malval called on civil servants to disobey the new government's orders and demanded that Cedras resign immediately, charging that he had disgraced his uniform and locked Haiti into "the darkness of night."
"The time has come for you to leave so that a new dawn may break for the Haitian people," Malval told Cedras publicly. "Morally, you are not worthy of the title of commander in chief of the armed forces of Haiti."
White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers immediately issued a statement praising Malval as "courageous," saying the United States vigorously supports the acting prime minister's denunciation.
"Malval and his Cabinet are the only legitimate constitutional government in Haiti, operating under the authority of President (Jean-Bertrand) Aristide," the statement said. "Obviously, neither we nor the international community will have any dealings with the Jonassaint Cabinet."
The Administration has been intensifying its economic pressure against Haiti, pushing to tighten U.N.-imposed sanctions and threatening to use "the military option" if Cedras and other military leaders do not resign.
President Clinton also has appointed William H. Gray III, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, as special envoy to Haiti in hopes of working out a diplomatic settlement. Planning for possible military action has been suspended temporarily.
The developments came as, separately, the Pentagon announced that the United States has contracted with a Ukrainian firm, the Black Sea Shipping Co., to provide the merchant vessel Ivan Franco for use as an immigrant-processing ship, at least for the next few weeks.
Under a new policy announced by Clinton earlier this month, the Administration will step up processing of Haitian applications for immigration to the United States by reviewing them aboard ships at sea. The shift was designed to meet protests by the Congressional Black Caucus, which complained that the policy of intercepting Haitians at sea and returning them to the island without a hearing was endangering lives of those sent home.
State Department spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters Monday that, while officials are "working on" putting that policy into effect, U.S. warships had intercepted 586 Haitians since last Thursday. "They are a reminder that those who attempt to leave Haiti illegally and not take advantage of the process that exists now . . . will be met with the same firm implementation of the policy of direct return that remains U.S. policy," he said.
Officials said the Ukrainian ship is intended as an interim step while the Administration looks for a third country--possibly Barbados--that might agree to provide processing facilities for would-be immigrants from Haiti.
In his remarks to reporters Monday, Perry said, "We're starting to get some signals from Haiti, but it's very difficult to interpret just what these signals mean." He said some of them had suggested "that Cedras might be willing to step down."