To succeed in Haiti, U.S. must find means to ease hostilities between rich and poor

October 02, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE,HAITI — PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The rich, in their villas in the cooler, blossom-covered hills of Petionville, sleep these nights with the nightmare of being "necklaced" with flaming gasoline-filled tires.

The poor, in their shanties in the sweltering, stinking slums of Cite Soleil, have sweeter dreams, of running water, tables filled with food, of jobs.

Only if President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's impending return dispels the nightmares of the one and fulfills the dreams of the other -- while keeping both from each other's throats -- will the United States' intervention here be successful.

That is no small order.

This is a country steeped in violence, torn by extremes and laden with resentments. It will take nothing less than a change in the national character, even a reversal of history, for Haiti to become peaceful and modestly prosperous in the 21st century.

It will also take a huge investment of time and money by the international community, led by the United States, to breathe life into the moribund economy. A jump-start of no less than $550 million has been earmarked for Haiti in its first year under Father Aristide's renewed democracy.

The mission here is constantly shifting gear: The first week the priority was to establish a military presence; last week it was to reintroduce the institutions of democracy; this week it will be to keep control of an increasingly explosive situation that the normal forces of law and order seem either unwilling or unable to control.

Throughout, the United States has been, and is, fostering a gradual return to normality. One day it lifted its economic embargo. The next it protected legislators as Parliament met for the first time in 16 months. The following, it brought the mayor of Port-au-Prince, Evans Paul, out of hiding to reoccupy City Hall.

To further convince ordinary Haitians that the U.S. force is a benign presence, military engineers worked frantically to refire the generators that supply this city with electricity but which had all but closed down for lack of fuel and spare parts because of the United Nations embargo. Thursday night, the lights went back on in Port-au-Prince.

The rationale is to use this progressive return to normality to calm an excitable population, to convince Haitians that better days are not far ahead, and to prevent the resentment and fear that has grown over three years of public terror from exploding into a bloody outburst of retaliatory street justice, as it has a couple of times already.

But, despite the Clinton administration's best efforts, the United States is being drawn ever more deeply into the chasm between the two sides. As one Haitian businessman, who asked not to be named, put it: "If the U.S. really wants to change things here, it has to take control now. Otherwise, you will see civil war after Aristide returns."

All the time, U.S. patrols are making their presence felt. But the Haitians keep asking a passionate, almost angry, question: When are they going to disarm the bad guys?

The more than 20,000 U.S. troops now in this nation, which is little larger than Maryland, remain popular with ordinary Haitians, even though the citizens may wonder why the soldiers have been standing by so carefully. They are, of course, less welcomed by the elite, who see them as heralding unwanted change.

Ironies in U.S. involvement

This has been a military venture filled with irony, from the notion that the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, pays the Haitian dictator, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the courtesy of calling on him at his headquarters, to the mind-boggling idea that U.S. military police are co-operating with Haitian police to provide security for the return of Father Aristide.

The major irony, of course, is that if there has been logistical success in getting so many troops here safely, the tactical setbacks showed the way forward.

* When a Haitian demonstrator was beaten to death by police in front of U.S. soldiers, it was a salutary prompt to the Clinton administration to get its priorities right.

It quickly extended the soldiers' mandate from protecting themselves and other Americans to also saving Haitians from violence.

Until then, the U.S. military had been in danger of seeming to be entirely too cozy with the dictators, allowing them to continue to terrorize the population while seeking their cooperation on security issues.

* The killing by Marines of 10 Haitian security officers in Cap-Haitien immediately provoked fears of reprisals by the still-armed Haitian military, police and paramilitary "attaches," already humiliated and angered by the U.S. armed presence. Instead, it appears to have created a recognition of reality, that the United States has overwhelming force and anyone who challenges it will pay heavily, probably with his life. This may not prevent isolated incidents of terror, but it appears to be discouraging firefights.

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