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Haiti’s Stability Still in Doubt as U.N. Pullout Draws Nearer : Democracy: Violence, economic woes and hints of sidetracked election cause U.S. nervousness.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-year-old Jean-Claude Jeslin, taking a break from rebuilding the hurricane-wrecked bridge that links his modest coastal village to a road on the southern end of this poverty-plagued country, ponders life next year after U.S. and U.N. troops go home.

“There will be no more work, no more jobs,” Jeslin declared, taking on the role of spokesman for half a dozen Haitian workers who have been helping U.S. Army engineers with the project.

How will Jeslin--and Haiti--get along? “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

That is exactly the question that has been nagging senior Clinton Administration policy-makers as the United States and its allies head toward a critical date in their year-old attempt to restore democracy in Haiti: the expiration of the U.N. peacekeeping mandate on Feb. 29.

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On Friday, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide introduced a new, complicating element when he endorsed a proposal that he should remain in office for three more years despite a legal prohibition on a second consecutive term. But Aristide said he wanted more talks with Haiti’s business elite and rival political parties before reaching a decision.

“If you want three [more] years, I will walk with you,” Aristide told a national conference on Haiti’s political, economic and social problems held in advance of the planned Dec. 17 elections here. “My role is to listen to both sides to find a bridge. My mission is fragile.”

Although the last U.S. troops will not be out of Haiti until May 31 under present plans, the U.N. mission--carried out by about 3,000 U.S. Army personnel and 3,000 peacekeepers from other countries--has already begun a gradual withdrawal, with plans to speed it up late next month after the election.

The outlook after the troops leave is not too encouraging. While Haiti has made visible progress in the 13 months since U.S. armed forces landed on the island nation and restored Aristide to power after he had been ousted by the Haitian military, street violence has returned and few here would argue that Haiti is ready to go it alone.

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“There was only so much of a window that we had--and we did the best we could” in trying to overcome Haiti’s many problems, said Maj. Gen. Joseph Kinzer of the U.S. Army, who has been serving as commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force here. “It’s going to take three to five years to get [Haiti] as we would like to see it.”

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Although a new U.N.-trained national police force--still in the making--has eliminated most of the human rights abuses that the now-disbanded Haitian army once perpetrated routinely, officials say the unit is inexperienced, poorly equipped and not yet able to provide real security for the country.

While Haiti has begun to rebuild its government institutions, the job is far from finished. After national elections in October, the National Assembly began functioning again, and most city and village governments are back in business. But the courts and justice system are still just skeletons.

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The economy has improved visibly since Aristide was restored to power, but unemployment is still a major problem and the government is locked in an impasse with international financial institutions over its refusal to follow Western economic prescriptions.

Indeed, partly because of Haiti’s refusal to sell off its costly state-owned enterprises, the United States has been withholding $4.6 million in foreign aid, and about $125 million in other lending also is hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, the value of Haiti’s currency is plunging.

Perhaps most disconcerting, however, has been the return of street violence, some of it politically related. Following the shooting of two members of the National Assembly on Nov. 7, Haiti has experienced a new wave of looting and killing that has left dozens of people dead or wounded and has threatened the homes of Aristide opponents.

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On Thursday, rioting in a Port-au-Prince slum--sparked after a 6-year-old was shot to death under unclear circumstances--left three people dead and accusations flying against criminal gangs and rogue police. On Friday, gangs with machine guns boldly roamed the streets of the sprawling Cite Soleil slum as residents armed themselves with machetes and knives. Police were nowhere to be seen.

Earlier this month, Aristide had revived fears of a return to government oppression by delivering a firebrand speech urging his followers to “go to the neighborhoods where there are big houses” to help disarm opposition sympathizers. “Do not sit idly by--do not wait,” he said.

As a result, the Clinton Administration--concerned that its year-old effort here may unravel during an American presidential election year if U.S. and U.N. forces pull out entirely--has begun mulling over options on how to keep an international presence beyond the end-of-February pullout date.

Aristide supporters--and some other analysts--insist that his Nov. 11 tirade was not intended to encourage followers to turn to violence. Much of the speech was “misunderstood,” said Robert Maguire, an analyst with the Inter-American Foundation in Washington. “He was urging them to help the police.”

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And senior U.S. officials here say the charismatic former priest privately assured Washington last weekend that his outburst was an aberration--prompted by the fact that one of the slain legislators was a cousin--and that he intends to cool his rhetoric.

Nevertheless, there are fears by some in Haiti--and the United States--that the violence may have been part of a plan by Aristide and his supporters to undermine the presidential election in an attempt to guarantee him continuing power.

Prior to his statement Friday that he might be willing to stay on despite the bar in Haiti’s new constitution against a second term, Aristide had named a close ally, former Prime Minister Rene Preval, to be his party’s candidate. That prompted major opposition parties to boycott the election, and Preval’s only opponents are from 13 minor political groups.

The recent violence has been part of a steady deterioration in relations between Aristide and the international community, not only over what economic policies Haiti should follow but over what some view as Aristide’s unwillingness to bring about a national reconciliation.

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Indeed, the priest-turned-president’s Nov. 11 speech contained a bitter attack on the United States and United Nations for failing to move aggressively enough to disarm Haiti’s lingering paramilitary groups--a step the international forces say must be left up to Aristide to handle.

And, in an allusion to the U.S. election, he suggested that President Clinton needs a success in Haiti as much as Aristide needs the United States. “The month of November, 1995, must be a month of . . . success so the month of November, 1996, can be a success also in the United States,” he said.

“What makes me uncomfortable is that it’s a flammable mixture that we have,” said George Fauriol, a Haitian specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, in Washington. Fauriol also worries that Aristide may be turning into a radical leftist again. “Deep down, he never changes,” Fauriol said.

The latest wave of violence is not the only political problem that has plagued the island nation since Aristide took over.

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Human Rights Watch/Americas, a Washington-based monitoring group, has reported dozens of threats and attacks against election officials over the past several months. And a month before the election, Haitian authorities have mysteriously “misplaced” between 800,000 and 1.5 million voter-registration cards.

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Sarah A. DeCosse, an analyst at Human Rights Watch/Americas, pointed out that not all the violence has been directed at Aristide opponents, but she said the government has been unable to deal with it in any case. “What’s going on now in Haiti is a very disturbing demonstration,” she said.

Officials here say Aristide’s real intentions will not become known until after next month’s election, when the successor government is chosen and the new president--presumably under Aristide’s instruction--outlines a plan for dealing with the nation’s problems.

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It is not clear yet what the Clinton Administration will do to keep the situation in Haiti from unraveling between now and next year’s U.S. elections. By any measure, U.S. and U.N. troops have done a herculean job so far. Order generally has been restored. Casualties have been minimal.

Several key U.S. officials have concluded that at least some continuing presence is needed to keep Haiti on track--possibly in the form of a small but still-visible international force drawn from remnants of the current operation.

Washington is having to proceed carefully, however. With the pending deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina already a political hot potato, top Clinton advisers are reluctant to see the President renege on his pledge to pull most of the U.S. peacekeepers out of Haiti before March 1.

So far, no firm conclusions have been reached on how to proceed.

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“Is it [going to be] UNMIH II [an extension of the current United Nations Mission in Haiti]? Is it something else?” Kinzer asked a visiting delegation headed by Army Chief of Staff Dennis J. Reimer this week. “The answer is, nobody knows.”

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For their part, Administration policy-makers have publicly expressed optimism about Aristide. Officials say despite his earlier reluctance, the president recently has indicated he is ready to begin selling off some state-run enterprises, paving the way for a resumption of international aid.

In the meantime, almost everyone agrees that there is much to be done between now and the February pullout date: improving security, strengthening government institutions and pushing Haiti into adopting sound economic policies.

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“Without these,” Fauriol of the CSIS warned, “Haiti’s political prospects are pretty grim.”

U.S. and U.N. officials are now prodding the Aristide government to take steps to meet the pullout deadline--and the transition to full control by the Haitian government. They are prodding the government to begin planning for hurricanes and other disasters. And they are rushing to complete public works projects, such as rebuilding the Jacmel Bridge.

Jean-Claude Jeslin’s job with the bridge project--which involves heaving large round white stones into a mold for concrete abutments--is one that almost certainly will disappear when the allies pull out, leaving him unemployed again. He currently is paid $5 a day--good wages by Haitian standards.

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For now, uncertainty is the order of the day. Fauriol predicted that, if the situation here is going to unravel, “my bet is that it would unravel a few weeks to a few months after the new [Haitian] government comes in.”


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