WASHINGTON — AFTER months of fitful negotiations to reinstate ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest-turned-politician and his parliamentary rivals reached accord this week on his eventual return to office.
But within hours, the president himself sounded as if he were repudiating a portion of the deal that would give amnesty to Haiti's military commander.
The agreement was considered a major breakthrough in an international effort led by the Organization of American States to support democratic rule in the troubled Caribbean nation. And diplomats, still assured that the agreement was firm enough with all other signers to succeed, were scurrying yesterday to urge Aristide to change his tone.
"Our grave concern is that what he said very easily could be interpreted as repudiation of the accord," says a US diplomat close to the negotiations.
Recent Haitian history - since the end of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986 - is littered with democratic breakthroughs gone bad. So diplomats are "cautiously optimistic" about this one.
There is not only concern that the political settlement will hold up even among the handful of Haitian politicians who signed it, but also whether the de facto power in Haiti, the military, will also agree to it.
The US diplomat familiar with the negotiations expressed surprise that the agreement could be signed with such "gusto" by all sides Sunday, when only an hour earlier, the outcome of the weekend talks had been "doubtful."
Another longtime expert on US-Haiti affairs, who has criticized the OAS negotiations and its trade embargo against Haiti as ineffective and damaging, even called the settlement a diplomatic "miracle."
Aristide's shoot-from-the-hip comments after the negotiations were characteristic, diplomatic observers say, of unpredictable behavior on his and other politicians' parts throughout the difficult months of negotiations.
The deal reached had concessions to all sides, including the military. Some of the points covered included: Aristide's return, with no date set; and the appointment of moderate communist leader Rene Theodore as prime minister, to lead a "consensus government" before the president's return to power.
It included acceptance of all parliamentary actions since the coup and a "general amnesty," effectively allowing Brig. Gen. Raoul Cedras, considered a reluctant participant in the coup against Aristide, to remain commander of the Army. The agreement also included acceptance of an OAS civilian mission to advise in creating democratic institutions. The agreement and Theodore's nomination will be brought before the Haitian parliament for ratification.
"The ratification of Rene Theodore as prime minister is the important first step," explains a US diplomat who ask not to be identified. "Many observers recognize him as independent enough to assure all sides he's not captive of any one faction and able to put together a national unity government."
Theodore himself was the target of an assassination attempt in January. The incident caused the US to protest by recalling its ambassador.
Now US officials say they have reason to believe that General Cedras will accept the terms of the negotiated settlement and make an effort to guarantee its execution. But four of the last five governments were overthrown by Haitian military leaders who had just such votes of confidence from US officials.
Even now, US officials admit that because the military is divided, it is not clear how much Cedras can guarantee.