Haiti's New President Woos Army
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — THE Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who won an overwhelming victory in Haiti's first democratic elections last December, takes office today before the National Assembly - and under the watchful eye of the powerful military. The new president's early morning speech kicks off four days of festivities ranging from musical concerts to a ceremony at Fort Dimanche (the national prison) that will commemorate the victims of repression.
It is both a hopeful and ironic beginning. The same Army that is widely acknowledged to have participated in the deaths of thousands at Fort Dimanche during the 29-year Duvalier-family dictatorship will also be providing security for that solemn ceremony.
In a country where violence and politics have so long been linked, security provided by the Army - or the lack of it - will likely determine whether Haiti's nascent democracy survives, analysts and diplomats say.
Fr. Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest who won the election in part because of his long record of outspoken criticism of Duvalier rights abuses, knows that the only way he can gain safety for himself and his new government is by gaining Army support.
Army Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham ordered his troops to squelch a Jan. 6 coup attempt by Roger Lafontant, ringleader of the Tontons Macoutes, a paramilitary gang set up under the Duvaliers. It was a gratifying moment for those who thought the Army might side with Dr. Lafontant. But recognized divisions of loyalty in this 7,000-strong military have left many suspicious of the Army's long-term allegiance.
``The Army reflects the society,'' says a United States diplomat. ``They are split. There are many soldiers, who, deep down, don't believe in democracy any more than they believe in Aristide. It was the immediate, violent reaction of the people against the coup that forced the military to choose the side they did. But who's to say what will happen next time?''
Aristide has praised the Army for its good conduct during the electoral process, but warns that problems with the Macoutes have not ended with Lafontant's arrest.
``The Macoute system has been disconnected,'' he says. ``But as individuals, the Macoutes still exist. A lot of them are still roaming the countryside, and it's more dangerous because we don't know where they all are.''
In a national speech last Friday, General Abraham denounced recent violence, promising security for the inaugural festivities. Hours later, a home for boys run by Aristide was set on fire. Four youths were killed.
Aristide immediately accused the Macoutes, suggesting that such acts were provocations to incite conflict between the people and the Army. But in a show of solidarity at the funeral, Abraham sat to Aristide's left, just as he did at a press conference Aristide gave upon his return from a recent two-day visit to France. With a touch of humor, but also of truth, Aristide remarked, ``My heart is on the left.''
ARISTIDE has been criticized for what some describe as his ``personal system of justice.'' For example, hundreds of businesses were destroyed in rioting by Aristide supporters that followed the aborted Jan. 6 coup. About 100 people died in the violence. Aristide critics say he condones attacks on purported enemies.
One thing, however, is clear. The Haitian people are ready to defend their new democracy. On Jan. 26, thousands of militants responded to an alarming rumor that another coup attempt was in the works. It was a false alarm. Yet observers say such militancy is one reason no one has stepped forward to defend Lafontant.
``I think the presence of Lafontant in the hands of the Army will be a test for Aristide's government,'' says a radio station director. ``The Macoutes may try to buy off the judges, which could push Aristide supporters toward violence. Or they may force Aristide to make an authoritarian decision to show he's not a democrat. They will use whatever errors he makes to try and destroy his government.''
A high-ranking Army source says the military has been wrongly blamed for much of the country's problems. Although he recognizes that the military has placed in power four of the last five governments, he believes the civic education his institution has been been receiving via the electoral process has helped change the attitude of many soldiers.
``The Army has been in politics for 40 years, and where has it gotten them?'' asks the Haitian officer. ``Their reaction to the coup attempt was the product of all our work to explain what their real role is. It's not to say who should be president. That's the voice of the people, and they chose Aristide for five years. Our role is security, not politics.''
But Antoine Izmery, a radical whose family business has made him one of the country's wealthiest men, does not think Army reform is possible. Mr. Izmery, who has been arrested 17 times, spent 26 days in jail in 1981 without being charged.
Izmery spoke in his cluttered office, an Aristide poster visible. ``The whole Army needs to be wiped out,'' he says. ``You are dealing with an institution which lacks sufficient education. There is no command, no hierarchy, and no one can accuse anyone of a crime because they are all guilty.''
His extreme position is balanced by those who believe recent violent acts were the result of ``radical left-wing Aristide supporters,'' a Western diplomat says.
The truth may lie somewhere in between. But most observers say the Haitian people have put their lives on the line to get where they are today. ``Hand in hand,'' says Aristide, ``democracy, liberty, justice, and solidarity need never be absent again.''