WASHINGTON -- After three years of diplomacy and three weeks of U.S. military occupation, the end of Haiti's dictatorship came down to a real-estate deal.
The just-retired Haitian strongman, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, and his wife, Yannick, demanded compensation for the property they were leaving behind in Haiti.
The United States obliged. After first refusing to buy the property, U.S. officials agreed to rent General Cedras' hillside mansion outside Port-au-Prince, his beach house and his mother's home, for a year, at what the State Department calls fair-market value.
That move, and a U.S. announcement yesterday that it would releasethe Haitian military leaders' frozen U.S. assets, raised unpleasant questions yesterday about American payoffs to men branded by the United States as thugs.
But in the dictator-relocation business, results are what count. The departure of General Cedras and his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, was "something that would contribute to a much better and more stable environment, which would also encourage the restoration of democracy and certainly an easier return by President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide to Haiti," said Christine Shelly, a State Department spokeswoman.
U.S. taxpayers also footed the full cost of packing and transporting the Cedras and Biamby families to Panama, including the cost of charter aircraft.
Washington had wrung agreements from General Cedras and General Biamby last weekend to leave Haiti. But actually getting them out of the country before the scheduled return tomorrow of Father Aristide took hours of frantic diplomacy while two jets waited on the airport tarmac in Port-au-Prince.
It involved high-level Clinton administration officials, including Vice President Al Gore; Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott; Samuel Berger, the deputy national security adviser; Attorney General Janet Reno; Father Aristide; the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, William Swing; and President Ernesto Perez Balladares and Foreign Minister Gabriel Lewis of Panama.
Panama had previously indicated that it would provide a haven for General Cedras, but its leaders got cold feet in the face of domestic opposition. Panamanian leaders demanded a U.S. *T guarantee that Panama would have no obligation to pay the cost of housing or protecting the Haitian strongmen and their families. They also insisted on a formal request to accept the military rulers from Father Aristide, who, in a statement, had said merely that he would "be pleased if Panama did so."
Father Aristide complied in a letter faxed to the Panamanian Foreign Ministry at about 3 p.m. Wednesday that was relayed to Mr. Perez Balladares and Mr. Lewis, who were on a trip to Nicaragua.
But it took the intercession of Mr. Gore -- who was attending the same ecological conference in Managua, Nicaragua, as the Panamanians -- before they agreed to the asylum request early Wednesday evening.
The State Department lavished praise on Panama yesterday. "We certainly very, very much applaud the action of the Panamanian president in taking this decision," Ms. Shelly said.
Dealing with the Haitian dictators had many of the prosaic elements of transferring an executive and his family to a new city, one official said. The Cedras family was determined to go to Panama because Mrs. Cedras, who played a major role in the negotiations, had already enrolled her children in school there.
The Cedras and Biamby families arrived in Panama early yesterday morning. They moved into a hotel where their entourage took up an entire floor. News reports from there quote Panamanian officials as saying that they would begin their new life on the tropical island of Contadora, once the home of the exiledhah of Iran.
"We are a family that is passing through very difficult times," General Cedras told reporters in Panama after arriving shortly before dawn. "We hope to live here in Panama in pure peace and tranquillity."
The Cedras family and General Biamby also demanded that 23 family members, domestic servants and other associates who didn't want to go to Panama be allowed into the United States. On Wednesday, that was arranged. Some already had green cards allowing them to enter the United States. Others were "paroled" by Ms. Reno, allowing them to apply for legal immigrant status while inside the United States. They arrived in Miami yesterday.
As negotiations with Panama were reaching their climax, Ambassador Swing, in Port-au-Prince, worked out the final details of the property deal.
"An agreement in principle was reached to lease these three properties to the United States," Ms. Shelly said, adding that a detailed agreement would have to await "all appropriate reviews regarding the circumstances in which we could do that."
"The rental agreement would have to reflect a fair market value," she said, "and they could only be leased for use by diplomatic and consular employees or personnel, or uses of the United States government."
Ms. Shelly said the unfreezing of assets of some 600 high-ranking military officials and their associates was always considered a "probability" once the military leaders stepped down. It is unclear whether this decision figured prominently in this week's negotiations. Some close observers of Haiti say that General Cedras had ample opportunity to liquidate any U.S. assets before the freeze was actually imposed.
It was nearly 3 a.m. when General Cedras, wearing a blue suit instead of his familiar military uniform, arrived with General Biamby and their families at the airport to board a Boeing 757 for Panama. Mr. Swing's final gesture was to be on hand for their departure.
The administration did draw a line against the exiled Haitian military men. "Cedras and Biamby will not be allowed to come to the United States . . . ever," said White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.