Haiti's Perilous Transition

October 05, 1994

One day after U.S. forces in Haiti cleared the way for a mob to ransack the headquarters of the dreaded FRAPH para-military organization, they guarded its leader from an angry populace yesterday as he promised an end to violent tactics. If this sounds like American soldiers are operating under schizophrenic rules of engagement, one answer is that they are. The other is that they have to be.

For better or worse, U.S. forces at this moment have taken over Haiti and are running it in classic imperial fashion. Americans control the country's economic, political, judicial and security affairs. And despite misgivings about this whole affair, the best solution is that they do it adroitly, hold casualties to a minimum, disarm and retrain Haitian security forces, turn over authority to a legitimate government -- and get out as soon as possible.

This is a touchy operation, fraught with peril. But at the midway point between the blessedly peaceful occupation of Haiti and the scheduled return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Oct. 15, all is going about as well as could be expected. Mistakes have been made, especially when Americans operating under ambiguous conditions momentarily let Haitian troops, police and paramilitary "attaches" linked to the military junta maul pro-democracy demonstrators.

But day by day, U.S. forces have tightened their grip. And if this means taking on police functions American spokesmen once vowed to avoid, the whole process of getting in deeper and deeper has an air of inevitability. No one should be surprised.

Much as the United States would prefer to leave internal security to Haitian army and police units, these units are so compromised and so accustomed to violent techniques that they have to be cleansed of the worst trouble-makers and retrained to civilized ways. That will take time, probably at least half a year. Even more, it will require of President Aristide a complete reversal of the divisive, vengeance-ridden tactics he exhibited during his fateful seven months of populist rule before he was overthrown three years ago.

Standing before the United Nations yesterday, Mr. Aristide used the word "reconciliation" more than a score of times to describe what he intends on his return to Port-au-Prince. But in saying "no to impunity, yes to justice," he also cast some obscurity on the nature of the amnesty for members of the armed forces that the Haitian parliament has yet to enact. This is of great concern to the Pentagon, which has to rely on the cooperation of the military junta at the same time it is forcing its downfall.

Thus, uncertainty prevails. It has yet to be proven that the mercurial Aristide can build the political center that Haiti so desperately needs if it is to escape the intimidation, bloodshed and hatred that make up so much of its history.

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