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As Tensions Swirl in Haiti, Just What Is the U.S. Role?

<i> Anne-christine d'Adesky, a Haitian-American journalist, is author of "Under the Bone" (FSG), a novel about Haiti</i>

As the deadline approaches for the Oct. 15 return of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, U.S. troops in Haiti continue the difficult job of disarming paramili tary groups who have vowed to kill him. After demilitarization, the next difficult step is national reconciliation, a theme that has peppered Aristide’s speeches as he seeks, with vocal U.S. support, to reassert his democratic credentials and calm fears about violence.

The pressing issue is the thorny question of justice: What to do about the political crimes attributed to the regime of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, a long list of murders, disappearances, torture and rape that the State Department recently ranked among the worst human-rights abuses in the world.

Around the country, corpses dotted the landscape, rotting in plain sight because the army ordered civilians to leave the bodies alone. What distinguishes such atrocities is the remarkable and personal degradation suffered by families and communities over months.

While Aristide long ago agreed to a general amnesty for Haiti’s generals, he and most Haitians oppose the blanket amnesty that former President Jimmy Carter first attempted to broker in an 11th-hour agreement with Haiti’s military junta. To critics, the U.S. willingness to dismiss such atrocities calls into question Washington’s commitment to Haitian democracy--never mind Aristide.

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Other behind-the-scenes activities by Clinton officials highlight the degree that Washington is attempting to set the agenda for Haiti--often in flagrant disregard for democratic processes. The Carter agreement was the first of several efforts to paint a softer picture of the Haitian army and paramilitary forces that would allow them to avoid being judged and so remain free to take part in Haitian affairs.

Consider the recent events surrounding the U.S. handling of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, the notorious right-wing paramilitary group led by the outspoken civilian leader, Emmanuel (Toto) Constant, a youthful neo-rightist close to the army leaders, whose father was a top army commander under Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. After Aristide’s ouster, Constant was rumored to be spying for the CIA--a common rumor in Haiti.

FRAPH carried out much of the reign of terror that led to the killing of more than 3,000 Haitian civilians in three years, by conservative estimates. In defiance of U.S. troops, FRAPH forces recently shot into pro-democracy crowds celebrating Aristide’s planned return, killing eight people and wounding many others. The attack prompted U.S. soldiers to raid FRAPH headquarters, seize weapons and make arrests; furious crowds then destroyed and burned the FRAPH building.

Under pressure to curb violence, Washington increased its demand on army’s leaders to leave before the Oct. 15 deadline. The notorious Port-au-Prince police chief, Michel-Joseph Francois, is now in exile in the Dominican Republic.

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But Constant has received far different treatment from the U.S. officials who view him as a U.S.-friendly capitalist technocrat--not an architect of murder. Just after the FRAPH raid, Constant appeared on a public podium with a sound system, allegedly supplied by the U.S. Embassy, flanked by a row of U.S. soldiers to protect him from a seething crowd. He then read a speech, reportedly drafted by U.S. Embassy officials, that cast him as a democrat ready to help heal the wounds of the nation.

Not surprisingly, Aristide officials were shocked at this bold attempt to legitimize Constant--given that Washington sources had privately confirmed his ties to the CIA. To some, it was another example of a contradictory U.S. policy that publicly supports Aristide as “the people’s choice” while privately grooming those who ardently oppose him for February, 1996--when Aristide must step down under the terms of the Haitian constitution.

Last week, proof that Constant has been involved with the CIA came from the FRAPH leader himself. He told a reporter that the U.S. defense attache in Haiti had encouraged him to “balance the Aristide movement.” CIA officials are denying that Constant is still their man--they say he has been off the CIA payroll since spring, 1993--a few months before FRAPH was formed.

But for Haitians, this only confirms their worst fears about the Clinton Administration. The teledjol, Haiti’s gossip mill, is buzzing with fury and paranoia--that the CIA is trying to subvert Aristide. These rumors have gained currency following another disclosure: President Bill Clinton’s recent agreement to conduct covert CIA operations in Haiti. Clinton claims the CIA’s mission is to produce pro-Aristide propaganda--as if that would make it somehow democratic, to covertly influence the internal affairs of another nation.

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Given such shenanigans, Aristide should be commended for adroitly resisting the U.S. maneuvers that would short-change the democratic process. By supporting the Haitian Parliament, he has put the amnesty issue in Haiti’s hands. On Friday, the Parliament did indeed pass a limited political amnesty law--and it gave Aristide the power to decide who receives this amnesty.

A more democratic alternative to amnesty is a truth commission to investigate crimes against humanity--similar to those established in Chile and Argentina. While such forums have rarely led to trials or prosecutions, they do allow for a public airing of crimes and what human rights attorney Bill O’Neill considers, “a national healing that is symbolic, but is also seen as a good faith effort to try and end the cycle of impunity.”

O’Neill, who works with the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, sees a Truth Commission as the first step toward establishing the facts of what occurred under the Cedras regime. Next would be badly needed judicial reform that calls for re-training judges, along with reforming the police and the re-training and integration of militia into civilian life. After a long campaign by some CIA officials and Haitian rightists to portray Aristide as a supporter of mob violence, the onus is on him to curb popular dissent. Since many of his enemies are armed and at-large, the odds are against him that violence will not follow his return.

History has shown that violence is always part of the process of decolonization--an apt description for what is taking place in Haiti. Haitians are no more violent than any other colonized people--Algerians, Angolans, South Africans--for whom violence became the only weapon against lawless regimes. The issue is justice, not violence.

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Several months ago, Aristide used the lens of history to reveal how he measured progress of Haiti. He was one in a line of Haitian leaders overthrown in a coup d’etat ; his election was almost a miracle. What mattered was not whether he lived or died, or even returned to Haiti, but that Haitians were refusing to return to dictatorship--a point that distinguished this period from the past.

The United States has an important role to play in helping Haiti succeed. At this point, the Clinton Administration needs to minimize the threat of violence in Haiti by adopting a more consistent policy of supporting Aristide and the democratic process in Haiti. Most important, it must publicly support the popular demand for justice--not as a threat to national reconciliation, but as a cornerstone of Haitian democracy.*


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