Haiti's military installs provisional president

May 12, 1994|By Harold Maas | Harold Maas,Special to The Sun

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haiti's military leaders propped up the Supreme Court's chief justice as Haiti's provisional president yesterday, defiantly flexing their muscle in the face of tightening economic sanctions and the threat of U.S. military force.

A group of legislators backed by the army commander, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, swore in 81-year-old Supreme Court Chief Justice Emil Jonassaint to replace Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president.

After taking the oath of office in a Parliament hall crowded with generals, right-wing politicians and rows of supporters, Mr. Jonassaint was drowned out by applause as he said, "Today, Haiti is ours."

The installation of Mr. Jonassaint appeared to be a bold challenge to the United States and its allies. Since the army's overthrow of Father Aristide in 1991, the military, trying to deflect international criticism, has allowed Father Aristide's backers to remain at government offices.

Now, all pretensions have been cast aside, as the military tries to formalize its ouster of Father Aristide. Many army supporters said they now can take over everything from government ministries to the Central Bank, regaining control largely surrendered when General Cedras signed a United Nations-brokered accord last year recognizing Father Aristide's authority.

The move to replace Father Aristide was immediately challenged by the United States, where the Haitian leader remains in exile.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said the procedures used to replace Father Aristide "seem to us to be invalid," and White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers called the appointment "cynical, unconstitutional and illegal."

If a foreign force invades, the Jonassaint government will have time to grab what cash is left in government coffers, one foreign analyst said. But yesterday's power move indicates that the military has no plans to back down, the analyst said. He added that if its new regime is not forced out, the overthrow of Father Aristide will be sealed.

"This [new government] is an effort Haitians are making among themselves to unblock the situation within the constitution and without violent conflict," said Henri Piquion, who briefly served as information minister after Father Aristide was overthrown.

"The objective is reconciliation."

Haiti has been without a day-to-day leader since Aristide-appointed Premier Robert Malval resigned in December. Father Aristide has declined to name a new prime minister until General Cedras and another coup leader, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, step down.

Mr. Jonassaint's rise to power was made through a constitutional provision calling on the chief justice to fill a vacant presidency. A minority of pro-military legislators invoked the provision last month and had been waiting for the military's nod.

Under the constitution, the chief justice who takes over the presidency is required to hold a presidential election within 90 days, but the renegade legislators decided yesterday that Mr. Jonassaint has until early 1995 to organize the polling. The lawmakers cited preparation time and the nation's crisis for the delay.

"This act is utterly without foundation in Haitian law and will not be recognized by the United States," said Stanley Schrager, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here.

The move came as the United Nations tightens an economic embargo against Haiti, hoping to force its military rulers to surrender power.

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times said that the United States will send 600 heavily armed troops to Haiti whether or not the international sanctions lead to a change, but the White House and the Pentagon staunchly denied the report.

Before yesterday, politicians and analysts in Haiti had debated whether the military would back the move with Mr. Jonassaint -- and risk more international backlash.

The brassy pageantry of yesterday's ceremony left the army's position clear. A 34-piece military band played in the bright sun in front of Parliament, a block from the U.S. Embassy. A hundred soldiers stood nearby, most in an honor guard.

The army also moved three cannons onto the lawn of the long-vacant National Palace, the seaside home of Haitian presidents. After Mr. Jonassaint took the oath of office, promising to "uphold the constitution and restore democracy," the army ushered him to the palace and gave him a 21-gun salute.

A few hundred people peeked through the iron fence surrounding the palace. Otherwise life continued as usual in the capital.

On the streets of one of the city's many slums, where Father Aristide's popularity has not dropped since he won a 67 percent landslide election in 1990, several people said they would never recognize Mr. Jonassaint as their leader because they had voted for Father Aristide.

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