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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

* The grenade attack on Thursday on a crowd of demonstrators celebrating the return of democracy and the bloody disruption by paramilitaries of a peaceful march Friday forced the Clinton administration to do what many Haitians had been urging it to do for a long time -- flex its muscles against the gun-toting security forces.

"This is good," said Albert Fleurie, 45, of Petionville. "This is what the Haitians want to see. This makes them feel secure."

That is a novel feeling for Haitians. This, after all, is an unstable and violent nation. Its history is an epic of sudden change, usually at gunpoint.

Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, it became a French colony in 1677. In the early 18th century this was France's richest colony. In 1804 the slaves rose up and overthrew their foreign masters and became independent.

32 dictators in a row

But independence did not end despotism. And Haiti produced its own breed of dictator -- 32 of them in rapid succession, until the United States intervened in 1915 after a mob pulled President Vilbrun Sam through the iron fence of the French Embassy, dismembered him, and paraded the remnants of his body through the streets of the capital.

U.S. troops quickly turned from invaders to occupiers, staying for 19 years. The United States prevented elections until 1930 and declared invalid any rural results it didn't like.

When the United States left in 1934, Haiti returned to its old ways, eventually leading to the rise of the Duvalier family, surrounded by cigar smoke, voodoo spells and the notorious Tontons Macoutes. The Duvaliers, "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc," held the country in terrorized thrall for almost 30 years, until a U.S. Air Force plane lifted the younger Mr. Duvalier into exile in 1986.

Five dictatorships followed in bewildering fashion before the election of Father Aristide in 1991. He ruled for just seven months before the coup-practiced army took over through the slim and disarmingly charming figure of General Cedras.

The general's days are now numbered, and Haiti is on a troubled path to freedom, with the United States once again guiding it.

Here, in this place of hopelessness, you find glimmers of hope in the smallest things. Within days, if not hours, of the U.S. arrival, enterprising street vendors were selling toy models of the weapons the troops brought with them. It was a micro example of the free market opportunism that the Clinton administration would like to see flourish here over the coming years.

But there is such a long way to go.

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