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Expected Aristide Vow to Step Down Not Likely to Restore Confidence : Haiti: His ambiguity on key issues has disillusioned many business leaders and overseas supporters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is expected to take steps today to quell rumors that he will not leave office as promised when his term ends Feb. 7, but many business people and diplomats say he has waited too long to revive international confidence in Haiti.

Aristide is expected to confirm in an interview scheduled for publication in the weekly Creole-language newspaper Liberte and at a scheduled Cabinet meeting that he intends to step down. Those statements probably will end speculation that has mounted since last week that he would renege on his commitment to conduct elections Dec. 17 and turn over power as scheduled.

The Haitian masses still clamor for the former priest, who was ousted by a 1991 military coup and restored to power Oct. 15, 1994, by U.S. military intervention. But Aristide’s ambiguity on crucial issues--which many observers believe fueled such rumors over the weekend and provoked an outbreak of violence earlier this month--has disillusioned domestic business owners and diplomats while alienating potential foreign investors.

Many critics believe that the United States shares in the blame. But they are divided over whether the United States has been too aggressive with Aristide or not aggressive enough.

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“My faith was not in the international community but in the United States of America, and that faith has been shot to hell,” said Georges Sassine, who displays a poster of the Green Bay Packers on the wall of his export-assembly factory office. “I expected them to send someone from the United States to sit next to every Haitian with any power.”

Sassine had advocated Aristide’s return and was beginning to believe that Haiti’s year-old experiment in democracy might work.

His 450 employees were sewing Lion King and Pocohantas children’s clothing for Walmart and Target once again, after a closure forced by a three-year international embargo. A 48,000-piece sample of electronic components to be produced by a new export factory received the approval of the potential client.

Then the president of his client company found out the goods were to be made in Haiti and rejected the prospective supplier. Still shaken by the lost contract, Sassine learned earlier this month that a garment shipment was halted by port disturbances after Aristide called on Haitians to help the police seize illegal weapons and thousands set up roadblocks, searching autos.

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His concern increased over the weekend when Aristide hinted that he might stay in office if his supporters insist. Now, the violence has subsided and elections appear to be assured.

But for Sassine, it is too late. “We had so much hope, once again,” he said. “We thought so much international attention would translate into something concrete. The opportunity has been lost. We will never have that attention again.”

Diplomats were only slightly less discouraged. “Aristide has a chance to go down in history as another father of the nation,” said one European diplomat. “This recent episode puts [that chance] in doubt. The 15th of October, everybody thought there was a definite break with the past, that this was the end of people seizing power and keeping it, a signal that democracy had arrived and would stay.”

How much Washington is to blame for Aristide’s posturing is a subject of debate. “This could be directed at the United States,” said one European diplomat. “There are reasons for Aristide to be annoyed by U.S. attitudes.”

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He said that U.S. officials had made the current administration uneasy by maintaining contacts with at least one high official of the former military government.

Washington has also delayed turning over to the Haitian government 60,000 pages of documents seized from a paramilitary unit that supported the former military government. State Department officials on Tuesday said they plan to give the documents to the Haitians.

In any case, diplomats agreed that annoyance with the United States was hardly a justification for Aristide’s actions in inciting the population and then creating uncertainty about his own commitment to leaving office.

“A head of state must act responsibly,” said one diplomat.

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Aristide’s actions probably will postpone any hope of the economic recovery that Haiti desperately needs until at least mid-1996, observers predicted. The economy is expected to grow 3% this year for the first time since 1990, an economist said, but a trade deficit estimated at $316 million continues to put pressure on the currency.

The central bank has spent an estimated $39 million since August to prop up Haiti’s currency, the gourde. While international reserves remain strong at an estimated $140 million, most of those funds come from international aid and from money that Haitians abroad send back home, rather than from exports or investment.

That seems unlikely to change soon.

“One of the things we had hoped for when Aristide came back was that the private sector and foreign investors would jump-start the economy,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager.

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“Aristide has not moved as quickly on economic reform as we had hoped,” he said. “That did not encourage a positive investment climate.”

Aristide’s failure to move on economic reform--particularly the sale of government-owned companies--is widely believed to be behind a Cabinet crisis earlier this year that ended in the resignations of internationally respected economic officials. It has also held up $4.6 million in U.S. aid and $100 million in aid from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

More worrisome than the money is the image projected to the international investment community.

“Since Aristide cannot demonstrate either domestically or internationally that he can be trusted, investors cannot trust the country,” said one diplomat. “People invest in countries that are stable. Without stability there will be no private investment and the country will not get by without private investment.”

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Indeed, Sassine said that his current clients will only permit him to keep a 15-day inventory of their cut cloth, because they are so nervous about the stability of this country.

“We are the ones who are going to pay once again,” he said, “my workers and myself.”


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