Amid taunts, Cedras steps down


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- With as much dignity as a taunted, deposed dictator can muster, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras yesterday ceded military power here and prepared for exile, leaving the leadership of this benighted country to democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In Washington, President Clinton announced that Father Aristide will return to Haiti Saturday to resume his "rightful place" as the country's first democratically elected president.

Mr. Clinton, who spoke to the nation about Iraq and Haiti, credited U.S. troops for putting Haiti back on the road to democracy.

"But I also want to caution again: The job in Haiti remains difficult and dangerous. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but our troops are keeping America's commitment to restore democracy.

Here in Port-au-Prince, the streets rang with U.S. appeals for calm, broadcast from military police vehicles, as General Cedras announced his departure at a formal military ceremony that turned into a public baiting session.

"Cedras, murderer," "Cedras, the thief," the crowd roared, chanted and jeered, drowning out the general's words that brought the three-year reign of terror here to an end.

If any proof was needed that a power vacuum now exists in this impoverished land, it came as an honor guard of Haitian soldiers, their uniforms three different shades of khaki, their ammunition pouches empty, flat and tattered, shuffled onto the scene, a shambling contrast to the heavily armed U.S. troops who protected the former Haitian commander-in-chief from his hostile countrymen.

The United States now is in sole control of this country, organizing its transition from military to civilian power, ready to take a dictator out and a democrat in, designing its transformation from economic basket case to productive society.

Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, commander of the U.S. intervention force, was front and center at yesterday's Haitian military handover, sitting between General Cedras and the new Haitian army commander, Maj. Gen. Jean-Claude Duperval.

"We would like to have a modern army, respect life, respect order, discipline, and work for democratic progress," said General Duperval, listing entirely novel concepts here.

Accepting his new command, he turned to General Shelton, saluted him and told the crowd: "We stand with them."

There is, in fact, no one else with whom the Haitian army can stand at the moment. The military-appointed president, Emile Jonaissant, is about to leave or be thrown out of the gleaming white palace he has occupied.

Leadership vacuum

Until Father Aristide returns with his Cabinet later this week, this country is formally leaderless, a disquieting interlude at a time of high passions and tension.

For General Cedras, the ceremony outside the army headquarters in downtown Port-au-Prince promised to provide some vestige of military honor but inevitably brought mainly public humiliation.

At least, he was not slinking away in the night, like so many dictators before him, but stepping down formally at the end of his constitutional three-year term as commander-in-chief, which will expire tomorrow.

Yet, all around him was the evidence of what his dictatorship had finally wrought -- his own dispirited troops; the overwhelming force of the foreign soldiers who foreclosed his options; the crowing crowd that wanted his head.

As usual in Haiti, the process broke down. The loudspeakers failed to work, and General Cedras stood there for all to see -- unable now to control even the smallest of events.

His wife, Yannick, in green and white summer dress, watched it all from the balcony -- the faltering start, and inaudible message, the crowd's curses.

"I am going to remit officially the responsibilities of the military institution," said General Cedras in the stilted jargon of military announcements the world over.

"I will not be with you," he continued. "I have decided to leave our country so my presence will not be the motive for great terror.

"Wherever I am, I will be suffering when you are suffering. When you are happy, I will be happy."

There was no room to doubt, even as he spoke, that most ordinary Haitians would be happy only when he was no longer with them.

General Cedras is expected to go into exile in Spain or Panama before Father Aristide returns on Saturday. General Cedras' chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, another of the coup leaders who ousted Father Aristide on Sept. 30, 1991, is expected to seek exile in Argentina.

As General Cedras' motorcade left the ceremony for a final drive to his home in the hills above this teeming capital, the crowd surged forward, banging on the windows, hurling more abuse. Only a short burst of automatic fire stopped them in their tracks. And General Cedras took his leave to the familiar sound of bullets.

'End of a sad chapter'

Stanley Schrager, U.S. Embassy spokesman here, termed General Cedras' departure "the end of a sad chapter in the history of this nation."

Reading an official statement to reporters at the regular news briefing, he said: "The past three years have brought unlimited suffering to the Haitian people . . . .

"Those days are over, and the return of President Aristide on Oct. 15 opens a new page on a brighter future for the people of this nation and a unique opportunity for national reconciliation, economic growth and democratic government."

Perhaps fittingly, the end of the dictatorship came on the first day of a new school year, with hundreds of children filling the streets in their crisp, new uniforms.

"Young people have had no hope," said Martha Elizabeth Jean Baptiste, 26, who earns less than $20 a month as a part-time school teacher.

That is the sort of disillusion and desperation awaiting Father Aristide. His resumption of power will end the international embargo that has brought so much pain. It will also open a period of massive international aid that will bring more than $1 billion to a country that needs every penny it can get.

But the big question remains: Will it bring peace and stability to a country so steeped in terror and violent upheaval?

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