Preval takes oath of office as Haiti's president Departing Aristide renews ties with Cuba

February 08, 1996|By COX NEWS SERVICE

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Jean-Bertrand Aristide handed over the presidency to Rene Preval yesterday in a peaceful transfer of power that embodied hopes the country will leave behind years of unrest.

On the eve of the inauguration, Mr. Aristide reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than three decades of estrangement, striking a characteristically independent stance and sparing Mr. Preval the annoyance of the United States, which maintains a 34-year-old embargo against Havana.

The unexpected overture to Cuba stole some of the thunder from Mr. Preval's announcement that Parliament had abolished the hated Haitian army and replaced it with a civilian-run police force of 5,200.

It was slap in the face to Haiti's former military leaders, whose troops killed as many as 3,000 people in a 1991 coup that overthrew Mr. Aristide and three years of military rule that followed. Mr. Aristide was overthrown seven months after he took office, and was returned to power by U.S. troops Oct. 15, 1994.

Under the gaze of U.S. troops yesterday, Mr. Preval promised to dedicate himself to trying to improve the lives of some of the poorest 7 million people in the western hemisphere.

"I promise you I will work hard for the next five years, day after day, to change the life of the Haitian people," Mr. Preval said. "I am at your service. It will take time. Little by little, we will move ahead."

Hundreds of Haitians waited for hours outside the wrought-iron gates of the presidential palace to watch the inauguration.

Some wept as they bid the popular Mr. Aristide farewell. Others cheered. All hoped Mr. Preval would answer their prayers for jobs, food for their families, shoes for their children and medicine for their suffering loved ones.

"I regret the passing of Aristide because we had a bond with him," said Robert Guillaume, 37, an auto mechanic. "I just hope that President Preval will do what Aristide could not do for us."

The inauguration of Mr. Preval, a 53-year-old agronomist, was held on the 10th anniversary of the ouster of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

Mr. Preval announced that Haitian exiles, many of whom fled the Duvalier dictatorship, will be able to vote in national elections.

Mr. Preval is expected to request a six-month extension of the United Nations peacekeeping force, which is to leave by Feb. 29, but it will shrink from 6,000 to 1,700.

U.S. peacekeepers are pulling out completely, although small groups of U.S. troops assigned to road building and civic medical duties may be left behind to provide a psychological deterrent to anti-democratic forces, U.S. officials said.

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