Haiti opposition struggles to harness momentum for change. But political divisions hinder efforts to force concessions from ruling council

From the earnest yearning of the peasants to the intellectual outrage of the upper classes, the desire for political change in Haiti is palpable. But divisions among the democratic opposition to the ruling military government are preventing it from taking advantage of factors in its favor, observers of the Haitian scene say.

Violence against the democratic process has been brutal - from the destruction of the election headquarters to the murder of civilians in the early hours of polling on Nov. 29. But the tyranny of a minority might be beaten, these observers say, if the Haitian majority can harness the momentum that has brought the nation to the brink of elections and capitalize on international reaction to the interim government's intransigence.

``We can't think we're back to Square 1 even though what happened [on election] Sunday is comparable to the worst of Francois Duvalier,'' historian Roger Gaillard says.

``Those [democratic] forces are powerful enough to restart the process. But the true issue is not elections. The point is to stop the return of dictatorship,'' Dr. Gaillard says.

But the division within the opposition is a major obstacle.

Yesterday's general strike seemed to be a case in point. Called by many groups across the political spectrum - but each with different motives - the strike was far from successful. It did not close down the capital or provincial cities, as hoped.

Opposition leaders have been widely divided in their reactions to the government's recent actions, which included the disbanding of the independent electoral council on Nov. 29.

Most leaders supported the strike. Some are calling for the government's resignation. Others want a reinstatement of the electoral council, created by Haiti's Constitution last March to oversee the election (which the council canceled after the violence). Still others want both - suggesting the council could compose a new government. Some even support the government's idea of a new council.

``There is no material possibility of sending away the [interim government] without getting behind a single idea or solution like proposing a new provisional government. They aren't going to walk away and leave government empty,'' says Louis Roy, a lawyer who helped draft the Constitution and was a key advisor to the electoral council.

``There is no real political leader'' able to move a majority of Haitians, he says.

Similarly, Hugo Triest, the Roman Catholic priest who directs the influential Radio Soleil, says: ``The only real solution is that everyone who wants to do politics agrees on a provisional government.''

``With an alternative [government],'' Mr. Roy says, ``we could hope for support not only from Haitians ... but we could hope to win foreign diplomatic and material support [like guns and money].''

But getting a consensus is a problem. There is no tradition of democratic political leadership here because there were no parties for 28 years.

A stampede of candidates for president was unleashed when Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted in February 1986.

The field of 23 presidential candidates (12 additional ones were disqualified for being Duvalierist) is an illustration of the problem, Roy says.

``You can have talks between two parties and find a common ground in any democratic country. But you can't find that with five or six or 10, let alone 23 parties in our country,'' he says. One month before the elections, Roy complains, he tried to bring all 23 candidates together to talk but only four agreed to sit at the same table with others.

Historian Gaillard, while alarmed by the government's apparent intransigence and the wave of political fear it has caused, sees this period as historically distinct from Haiti's depressing past in which the only president to fairly win a free election was done in by his own corruption in few months.

There is debate about how exactly dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced out of office. Many contend that it was divisions within the Duvalierist circle of power, or it was United States influence.

Whatever the case, Gaillard and Roy say, there were changes in Haitian society that certainly hastened Duvalier's fall. Those changes remain a factor in today's political scene. Among those changes are:

The new power of the church (Catholic as well as Protestant). The predominant voodoo religion had no pyramidal hierarchy and was, therefore, run by many independent voodoo priests who had influence only in a small area.

The repatriation of young people who were forced into economic or political exile abroad. They ``discovered the national shame of Haiti'' when they went abroad and have returned with greater expectations for change, Gaillard says.

The sense of political power people felt for the first time when Duvalier left.

The portable radio. The growth of radio stations has eliminated the isolation of this largely rural and illiterate people.

``When we take all this into account in Haitian history, we're in a new era,'' Gaillard says.

The concessions the government has already made are proof that these factors have given Haitians a measure of power they never had before, Gaillard says. For example, the interim junta took control from the electoral council in June but widespread public unrest forced the government to retreat.

But these new social conditions are not a guarantee of democratic success if they aren't captalized on, says Rev. Triest.

If Duvalierist violence continues to block outlets for democratic expression, Triest says, ``it is not unforseeable that the people would respond in kind. And that scares me.''

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