Pitfalls for the U.S. in Haiti

September 23, 1994|By J.P. SLAVIN

NEW YORK — New York. -- The much heralded Carter agreement that is permitting U.S. troops to peacefully deploy in Haiti is a potential mine field that might not only disrupt restoration of constitutional rule, but also weaken the credibility of the United States.

Little attention has been given to a key detail of the agreement: Haiti's parliament has until October 15 to pass an amnesty for the republic's 7,000 soldiers. This point may seem rudimentary and even democratic. What's wrong with the National Assembly, Haiti's bicameral legislature, passing a law promoting national reconciliation?

The problem is that the assembly is a card the army has played twice already to block the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The so-called Washington Protocol, brokered by the Organization of American States in 1992, collapsed after pro-army legislators staged a walkout during a crucial vote. Then last year the Governors Island agreement unraveled when parliament, acting in coordination with the Haitian army high command, failed to pass several laws including an amnesty for the army.

This time it is in the army's interest to have the amnesty adopted. Under the terms of the Carter agreement, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and two other powerful officers must retire from the military by October 15. General Cedras clearly wants the protection of an amnesty before he leaves his position of power.

But which parliament will grant the amnesty? The 100-seat assembly voted into office with Mr. Aristide in 1990 or a successor supporting Emile Jonassaint, the puppet president chosen by General Cedras? Mr. Jonassaint's rump parliament includes 12 legislators illegally voted into office to replace legally empowered parliamentarians whose terms expired after the 1991 coup d'etat against the Aristide governmentt. The Senate is solidly anti-Aristide.

It was Mr. Jonassaint who signed the Carter agreement and who on Wednesday convened a special session of parliament. If the Clinton administration acquiesces in Mr. Jonassaint's rump parliament passing an amnesty law, that body will have gained legitimacy. The Carter agreement calls for legislative elections in November. If the balloting is free and fair, there is little doubt pro-Aristide candidates will be swept into office. But what if the Jonassaint parliament meanwhile impeaches President Aristide? Then will the Clinton administration overturn one legislative act while honoring another, the amnesty?

A second, and bigger, problem is the possible erosion of popular support among Haitians for Operation Uphold Democracy.

Poor Haitians, the vast majority of the island's 7 million citizens as well as the base of Father Aristide's support, cheered U.S. troops on their arrival. But the Americans are there to oversee an orderly transition from the Cedras regime to the legitimate Aristide governmentt. If they continue to hold themselves aloof as General Cedras' soldiers brutalize people, the warm support of Haitians will chill. They will see the U.S. military not as liberators, but as allies of the Haitian army. Poor Haitians do not have the means or the weapons to carry out attacks on U.S. forces, as occurred in Somalia, but Operation Uphold Democracy cannot succeed without popular support.

To keep the U.S. mission on the right path, the Clinton administration must take four steps:

* Push General Cedras to disqualify the 12 rump parliamentarians so the Senate will no longer be dominated by Cedras cronies.

* Insure parliamentary security to allow a free and fair debate of the amnesty issue.

* Take public steps to bring U.S. troops closer to the Aristide government. For example, arrange a meeting between President Aristide's defense minister and the commanders of the U.S. troops in Haiti.

* Speed up Mr. Aristide's return. The sooner Haiti's first freely elected president returns home the better. Guaranteeing that a majority of Haitians will support Operation Uphold Democracy requires associating U.S. troops with Mr. Aristide, not General Cedras.

J.P. Slavin lived in Haiti from 1990-93 and was a contributor to The Sun. He is writing a book about Haiti.

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