Back home, preparations for Aristide's return go on

October 05, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

TABA, Haiti -- The masons, the plumbers and the gardeners were noisily working in the background yesterday, as Lt. Jennifer Jacobs, a military policewoman, said: "When you are building a new house, it's hard to tell what it will be like until the carpets are down."

This is not exactly a new house. It is the private residence of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, deliberately trashed after he was overthrown by a military coup three years ago.

Now craftsmen are working against the clock to have the place renovated in time for Father Aristide's expected return in less than two weeks. Walls are being knocked down, new windows installed, and the round rooftop swimming pool refinished.

Lieutenant Jacobs, 23, from Michigan, commands the Military Police unit now guarding the president's house along a rough, stone road, on the coastal plain here, where the relaxed pace of rural life takes over from the turmoil of the capital.

"There is a nice breeze here," she said, noting that her first days in Haiti were spent in an overcrowded warehouse in the airport's industrial park. Now the guest house of the Aristide residence is her temporary home.

"There is no water or toilet, but they are working on that," she said. "For Haiti, it's a very nice house, but it's not that big."

Architectural plans for renovating the building were faxed to Washington last week. As soon as Father Aristide approved them, work started Thursday.

But these are only the most personal of the preparations for Father Aristide's impending return. Many more important political, economic and social steps are also being taken to try to ensure him a safe and satisfying re-entry into office.

The whole U.S. military intervention here has been a carefully scripted preparation for the return of democracy in the form of the populist priest:

The first week saw the firm establishment of a U.S. military presence here, the necessary basis for the pacification of the country;

The second week, more than anything else, is likely to relieve the widespread tension here.

On a more sophisticated level, there has been a return of some semblance of political normality. The popular mayor of the Port-au-Prince, Evans Paul, is back in his office in City Hall, from which he was driven more than a year ago by assassination attempts and beatings.

The Haitian Parliament, many of its members in self-imposed exile abroad or hiding in the provinces, has reassembled for the first time in more than 16 months. It is working on an amnesty to protect the military dictators from prosecution, easing their departure from power.

Under the agreement between former President Jimmy Carter and Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the army commander, the generals will cede power when an amnesty law is passed or by Oct. 15.

The Parliament will also consider legislation to separate the police from the military, clearing the way for formation of an entirely new police force under the guidance of the U.S. Justice Department.

"There are a lot of things that have to happen here so the place is ready to accept and absorb this political return," said a U.S. diplomat involved in the transition planning.

"It is not just a matter of getting on a plane and coming back. A lot of organizational issues have to be considered."

When Father Aristide does return, his arrival will be a security nightmare. U.S. military police officers are coordinating his security with Haitian police officers, even though they are the forces of police chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois, who initiated the coup against Father Aristide. He fled the country yesterday.

"It will be a real rabbit chase to keep the security arrangements intact," said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Father Aristide will not return until the generals have left power and he is convinced of his own security. Whether that will be before Oct. 15 is an open question, although in a speech to the United Nations in New York yesterday, he vowed to return by Oct. 15.

"The important thing here is we have momentum of a positive kind going in a number of directions," said the U.S. official. "This is beginning to create the conditions where he can come back on a day certain in the relatively near future.

"If this series of calming events continue and the horizon is going to be calm, fine, bring him back sooner. But if not, why bring him back until conditions are right?"

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