U.S.-Aristide conflict cheers Haitian leaders

February 26, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The open and bitter conflict between the Clinton administration and Jean-Bertrand Aristide has left the military here confident that it has defeated conclusively all attempts to restore the exiled Haitian president to power, according to diplomats and Haitian political experts.

"They have control of the country," one diplomat said of the military, "and they have no reason to change. They are surviving the embargo, and they are laughing. They just don't feel the pressure."

The growing U.S.-Aristide dispute, which reached a public breaking point this week, was accompanied by a virtual flood of gasoline into Haiti in defiance of a worldwide embargo designed to crush resistance to Father Aristide's restoration.

So much fuel has come over the border from the neighboring Dominican Republic in the last week that the black market price for gasoline and diesel fuel dropped nearly $3 a gallon in two days from a high of nearly $9.

"That's still a very high price, and it's not enough to restore things to normal," said a Haitian businessman, "but it is certainly enough for the military to keep control."

But the sources said the military victory is even more strongly perceived in the angry impasse between Father Aristide and the United States over a plan proposed by anti-Aristide legislators and endorsed by the Clinton administration.

"They [the military] have won," said the diplomat.

The plan calls for Father Aristide to name a prime minister and Cabinet acceptable to his domestic foes and to pardon the army officers who engineered his 1991 overthrow before he could return to Haiti.

While Father Aristide rejected that sequence on grounds that it rewarded the people who deposed him and would undercut his ability to govern, he was most offended because the proposal made no mention of a date or timetable for his restoration.

Father Aristide, a fiery Roman Catholic priest who won an overwhelming election victory on a radically populist platform in 1990, had demanded that the military step aside before he would name a new government. He also demanded that he return 10 days after the agreement was finalized.

It is not just the Washington endorsement of the proposal drafted by some of Father Aristide's most stringent opponents that have disheartened Aristide supporters here.

"That was bad enough," said one international official connected to the diplomatic effort to restore democracy, "but what [U.S. Secretary of State Warren M.] Christopher said all but killed any chance of pressuring the military to give in."

He was referring to a position taken by Mr. Christopher earlier this week to prevent the extension of the economic boycott imposed on Haiti in October when the army reneged, for at least the second time, on an accord to bring Father Aristide home.

Mr. Christopher told a congressional committee Wednesday that any strengthening of the embargo, now limited to petroleum products and arms, would depend on Father Aristide's acceptance of the legislators' plan. Father Aristide dismissed the plan again Thursday as unworthy of consideration.

"What signal do you think that sent to the military?" asked another international official, who added that Mr. Christopher acted without informing or even consulting other nations involved in forcing the military to give way.

"Everything is in a state of confusion," said another diplomat from that group, known as the "Four Friends of Haiti": the United States, Canada, Venezuela and France.

Not only is there confusion among diplomats who thought of themselves as allies; sources say U.S. policy seems to have lost focus and purpose, an assessment echoed by a prominent businessman who recently met in Washington with Father Aristide and key State Department officials.

He reported that the situation is so bad that Father Aristide has cut off all direct contact with U.S. officials, who are reduced to asking those who have visited Father Aristide privately what the Haitian leader thinks.

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