U.S. basks in success, but isn't out of woods yet

October 18, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The peaceful return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marks a signal success for President Clinton's foreign policy.

But there remains the ever-present danger of violence and the enduring necessity for foreign involvement which constantly hold that success to ransom.

Father Aristide's first public outing yesterday, when his car was mobbed within yards of the palace, forcing him to return, suggested that he is in more danger of being loved to death than shot. But it must be remembered what had happened just 48 hours earlier.

Then, security forces were so concerned about his safety that he was whisked by helicopter from the airport -- the main U.S. army camp and a place of heavy security -- to his palace, where he stood behind a three-sided bullet proof screen to address his people.

To see the three lines of U.S. and international police inside the palace fence, the heavy U.S. armor outside it, and the helicopters and communications planes circling above was to understand just how insecure Mr. Aristide's grip on power would be were he to be left alone.

There is no question that he has popular support; witness his jubilant welcome, the dancing in the streets, the burst of civic pride that turned this city almost overnight from total eyesore into a tidy, if still tawdry, capital.

But there is also no doubt that among a privileged minority his return is bitterly resented. Despite the United States' best efforts to disarm the paramilitary forces here, probably tens of thousands of guns remain in private hands.

For the moment the descendants of the Duvalierists -- who supported the notorious Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his feckless son, Jean Claude "Baby Doc" -- have disappeared into the woodwork.

But they have not gone away. They are a patient bunch, and they will still be here when the last U.S. soldier withdraws.

When a U.S. reporter wanted to enter a Haitian military camp seized by U.S. forces, his interpreter asked the sullen Haitian army guard to open the gate. Stonily, the guard ignored the request, his blankness accentuated by the mirrored sunshades he wore. An argument between the two Haitians followed. At the end of it the soldier told the interpreter: "Some day the Americans will leave. Then, we will come and get you."

During the Duvalier years, the men of violence were the Tontons Macoutes. Once that nasty little organization was disbanded, they became the "attaches," paramilitary forces willing to terrorize the populace at the behest of the government.

More recently, there was the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), another terrorist organization that killed, raped and robbed under the guise of being the political wing of the army. U.S. troops have raided its outposts, and the crowds have quickly followed to trash them.

FRAPH has an estimated 5,000 members across the country. On Sunday, U.S. forces had only 39 Haitians in custody.

So there are still a lot of people here who would like to see Father Aristide assassinated, and that is what makes the situation so potentially unstable.

RTC This makes the separation of the police from the army and the reform of both so important. The army will be depoliticized and put under civilian control. The police will be demilitarized and trained to maintain law and order in democratic rather than dictatorial ways.

If this master plan for the reform of the security forces works, it will diminish, if not eliminate, the major threat to Father Aristide.

The country has had multiple military coups this century involving both the police and the army. Father Aristide was himself ousted in September 1991 in a coup led by the police chief, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, and backed by the army leaders, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and Brig Gen. Philippe Biamby -- all now in exile.

When a rumor rippled around this city Sunday night that the interim army chief, Gen. Jean Claude Duperval, had staged yet another coup against Father Aristide, thousands of Haitians rushed to the presidential palace. It was a false alarm. And to demonstrate the new political-military unity, Father Aristide and General Duperval raised the Haitian national flag and hugged each other on the palace steps as part of independence day celebrations.

Significantly, one element was missing from the carefully choreographed reinstallation of Father Aristide into his palace Sunday: the 21-gun salute.

There were three reasons:

* Haiti no longer has the sort of artillery pieces used to give such resounding recognition to heads of state. * The United States could have provided the loudest salute ever heard here or anywhere else in the Caribbean, but to have U.S. troops firing the ceremonial guns for a Haitian president would have smacked of puppetry.

* U.S. troops would not trust Haitian soldiers to load even their light weapons for even the most modest of volleys anywhere in the vicinity of Father Aristide, who remains the enemy to many of those who served or benefited from dictatorship.

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