Why So Long U.N. Embargo

June 27, 1993|By J. P. SLAVIN

Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- When the United Nations Security Council imposed a worldwide petroleum and arms embargo on Haiti's army-backed government last Wednesday, diplomats said the action was a giant step toward restoring democracy to the deeply troubled Caribbean nation.

As soon as the embargo was announced, army commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras agreed to meet with ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The meeting is scheduled to take place today at United Nations headquarters in New York.

But many Haitians, especially poor Haitians, are asking why wasn't the embargo put into effect nearly two years ago.

After the Haitian army overthrew freely-elected President Aristide Sept. 30, 1991, the Organization of American States voted to hit Haiti with a blanket, hemispheric embargo to pressure Gen. Cedras to accept Mr. Aristide's reinstatement.

The key to making the OAS embargo effective was a petroleum cut-off. Since Haiti keeps a meager six-week reserve of gasoline, Aristide advisers predicted the leftist Roman Catholic priest turned president would be home by Christmas 1991. They reasoned if the Haitian army couldn't deploy motorized patrols into the streets because of a lack of fuel, the brutal and highly unpopular army-backed regime would crumble due to popular protests.

But less than two months after the coup d'etat, a petroleum tanker from France -- not an OAS member state and thus allowed to sell gas to Haiti -- docked at Haiti's lone petroleum storage facility. Since then regular monthly shipments from non-OAS countries (although some tankers have come from OAS members such as Colombia) have arrived to keep Haiti's economy afloat, albeit barely. More important to Aristide's enemies, the 8,400-member army also has plenty of gas to stay in control of the streets.

"The (OAS) embargo has so many holes . . . it is largely meaningless," former Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes told the British Broadcasting Corporation recently. Mr. Barnes is now a Washington lawyer and a close Aristide adviser. Mr. Aristide is living in exile in Georgetown.

Seeing this giant hole in the OAS embargo, Aristide supporters -- who are generally poor and unarmed -- have waited for the international community to come to their rescue and implement corrective measures.

"I want a real gasoline embargo. That's the only way to pressure the army," a Port-au-Prince bus driver told me last summer. When I replied a fuel cut-off would mean he'd be out of a job, the driver -- who has three school-age children -- proudly answered: "I want my president back. I'm willing to suffer so my country can become a real nation."

I asked the driver why he didn't protest for Mr. Aristide's return -- even though I knew the answer. "My friend if I go into the street, I will be shot."

His answer is commonly heard among Haiti's maids, street vendors, peasant farmers and university students -- members of the voting bloc which gave Aristide 67 percent of the votes in the 1990 presidential election, the first honest balloting held in Haiti's history. Amazingly, Mr. Aristide won his landslide victory in a field 12 candidates. He is the clear leader of the vast majority of the country's 6.6 million citizens.

Unfortunately, Haiti's silenced majority -- silenced by soldiers who are backed up by Mr. Aristide's enemies in Haiti's small, powerful elite -- had to wait 16 months until they got what they wanted: Wednesday's U.N. decision to slap a worldwide fuel and arms embargo on Haiti.

During this long and painful interval, Aristide supporters have suffered not only egregious army-sponsored human rights violations -- on June 4, the International Civilian Mission, a joint U.N.-OAS human rights monitoring team in Haiti, charged the Haitian army with carrying out a terror campaign of arbitrary executions, beatings and torture -- but also a worsening economy.

Since the OAS embargo, the national currency, the gourde, ha decreased in value by 87 percent, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Embassy here. Since so many commodities are imported in Haiti, many consumer goods have gone up in price by nearly 90 percent since the coup. And in some cases by more. A six-ounce can of powdered milk has gone up by 185 percent since the 1991 coup. Incidents of malaria, acute respiratory infection, typhoid and child malnutrition are on the rise.

And if there was a country that does not need a slumpin economy, it is Haiti, where per capita income is $252, life expectancy stands at 54 years (life expectancy on the nearby island of Jamaica is 75 years) and where more than 65 percent of the population can neither read nor write.

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