Haiti's Avril Clings to Power, Hopes for Essential US Aid
WASHINGTON — HAITI'S search for democracy remains troubled. ``The situation is still explosive,'' says a well-informed Haitian political observer discussing the aftermath of last Sunday's attempted coup. ``We're worried that internal fighting will continue within the military,'' he says. ``The situation probably won't be clear for several days.''
Fritz Longchamp, of the Washington Office on Haiti, warns that if the military breaks into warring factions, Haiti would enter a ``cycle of destabilization.''
Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, who heads the military government, survived the coup attempt and exiled three military commanders who led it. But concern remains high that his rule is in danger unless he gets more international help. A well-placed Western diplomat with long experience in Haiti says General Avril desperately needs funds to keep the government afloat and the military content. ``He needs help or the troops will leave him.''
``If Avril goes, if the military splits, we're going to have real chaos,'' adds a high-ranking Bush administration source. ``The US has to fish or cut bait'' on its support for Avril's reform, he says.
Indeed, Washington is increasingly convinced that Avril is sincere in his efforts to move toward democracy, improve human rights performance, and crack down on drug traffickers. Congressional and administration sources say the United States is preparing to resume US aid to Haiti step by step.
``My feeling is that Avril has done enough to warrant US reconsideration'' of its economic aid freeze, says Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida, who has been active on the Haiti issue. Senator Graham points to Avril's increased cooperation in stopping use of Haiti as a transshipment point for US-bound cocaine.
Avril ``has tried to do all he can to move gradually toward democracy,'' says the Haitian observer, who is well connected in its political and military circles. ``But he has had to do it without any money in the treasury and with divisions in every sector of society - the military, the democratic opposition, and the church. This is a country that has exploded'' from trials of the past three years since dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted.
``Avril is no saint,'' says a Western diplomat in Haiti. ``But he is a hundred times better than what came before, and he is doing the right things now.''
Informed congressional aides say the administration will consult with concerned legislators before releasing any of the frozen economic aid. They will urge that US support be made contingent on progress toward free elections.
``We still have to keep the pressure on,'' says one key aide. ``There are plenty of people there who don't want democracy to happen and they play hardball.''
The US froze about $70 million in nonhumanitarian aid to Haiti in late 1987, after elections were disrupted by armed right-wing thugs and more than 30 civilians killed. The aid cut off, combined with a bad economic situation, generated a serious budget shortfall for the Haitian government. US activists see the aid freeze as the best US lever to support democratization.
Since coming to power in a September coup, Avril has slowly moved to allay US concerns.
First, Avril began consultations with the leaders of the democratic opposition. In February, he convened a political forum (which included the entire political spectrum) to design an electoral commission that would oversee eventual elections. He approved the forum's recommendations and last Friday accepted to sit on the commission the nine nominees put forward by various social sectors. They are supposed to be sworn in this week.
On March 13, Avril restored the bulk of the suspended 1987 Constitution. While some have criticized Avril for not reactivating all of the Constitution's provisions, informed diplomats in Port-au-Prince say most of the democratic opposition's leaders welcome Avril's move.
Western diplomats monitoring Haiti's human rights performance under Avril say it has improved markedly. Last week, after a senior US diplomat visited Haiti, Avril set up an office to crack down on drug involvement by members of the military and sacked four officers allegedly involved in narcotics trafficking.
The sacking and the appearance that it was done at US beckoning, however, helped spark the coup attempt and the military troubles, informed Haitians say.
``A number of officers resented the summary firings by Avril, who himself has a long history of corruption from the Duvalier days even if he is drug free,'' says a Haitian exile. ``These officers say the US handed Avril a list with the four names and he agreed to fire them. They resent that.'' US spokesmen have denied handing over any such list.
The rebellion was led by members of the military class of 1973 to which the fired officers belonged, say Western diplomats and Haitian sources. ``This looks like a case where fellow classmates were trying to protect their own rears and prerogatives,'' says one diplomat. Another adds that supporters of former dictator Duvalier are apparently trying to derail the electoral commission.
If Avril is able to retain control, he may be strengthened in the days ahead by having successfully quelled the rebels, say informed diplomats in Haiti. But the task of bringing democracy to the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation remains immense.
Senator Graham points out that the capacity of the government to control its own bureaucracy, let alone Haitian society, is very limited. Haiti's economy by all accounts remains a disaster and its society fragmented.
``Any new US aid will require intensive coaching by the US to make sure it gets used effectively,'' says a source close to Avril. ``And we need it fast.''