OAS Observers' Arrival Renews Hope in Haiti

Group will visit countryside to document human rights abuses

CARNIVAL in Haiti is normally a time of festive abandon. This year Haitians seem to be celebrating the arrival of Lent with renewed vigor, hopeful that the deployment of a joint Organization of American States (OAS) and United Nations (UN) civilian mission will end their 17-month-old crisis.

Maneuvering their way through throngs of Carnival goers, an initial group of 40 OAS observers entered Haiti Sunday, under an agreement brokered by UN Special Envoy Dante Caputo.

While the ultimate goal of the mission is to secure a safe return for Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the mission has also been mandated to help reform the French-based judiciary system.

Sixteen OAS observers have been in Haiti since September, but orders from the de facto prime minister, Marc Bazin, have prohibited them from leaving the capital. Members of the newly arrived mission plan to leave Port-au-Prince quickly and travel around the countryside to document human rights violations.

The Haitian armed forces, responsible for the September 1991 coup that forced President Aristide into exile, has accepted the arrival of the mission, though some question their sincerity.

"The Army has the tools to undermine the mission," says Rene Theodore, head of the Haitian Communist Party. One year ago, Mr. Theodore was selected as prime minister in a negotiated settlement between Mr. Aristide and the de facto government, but the accord was dissolved shortly after being signed. Instilling new hope

"There are plenty of armed `attaches' [Army-employed civilians] who, for small amounts of money, will continue the repression," Theodore explains. "In spite of this, we hope the presence of the observers will neutralize the repressive authority and instill new hope in the Haitian people for return to democratic rule."

According to a recently published report by Americas Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, "the suppression of civil society has become the principal goal of the Haitian Army since the September 1991 coup.... Since hostility to military dictatorship is widespread among Haitians, the Army views virtually any popular association as a potential conduit for organized oppression. As a result, all independent gatherings are considered suspect, and any sign of public protest or dissent is swift ly repressed."

Some analysts suspect that the Army and government have been pressured into accepting the mission under threat by the US government. President Clinton has taken a stronger position than the Bush administration did, promising to launch an aggressive effort to restore democracy in Haiti.

Mr. Clinton has also promised to uphold the 15-month-old OAS embargo, which he said has failed "simply because the US has not used its muscle to restore democracy."

A high-ranking Haitian officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, denies the Army's participation in massive human rights violations. He admits that the Army would have preferred to resolve the crisis in Haiti without foreign intervention.

"This is a national problem and should be resolved internally," the official asserts. "The first time Caputo came he spoke like a dictator. He made no reference to Haitian law or our Constitution." Respect for Haitian law

He adds: "But when he returned in February, he was more respectful. If the mission comes with honest intentions and respect for our culture, then there should be no problem. We want the violations to stop too."

Technical assistance from the mission is sorely needed for judicial reform. Military and police receive the same training. There is an appalling lack of qualified judges. In some urban places the ratio of courts to civilians is 1 to 200,000.

The mission will not, as previously demanded, have to be accompanied by armed members of the military, but they must still give advance notice to local sheriffs when visiting the countryside. They will have to wade through testimonies to decide who the guilty parties are.

"As in any political crisis, human rights violations can't be avoided," Justice Minister Moise Senatus said, downplaying charges against the government and military. "There's a lot of confusion about the nature of disputes. The majority of victims say it's because they are Aristide supporters, but that's a lie. It's because of economic and civilian disputes."

Part of the success of stabilizing the political situation for Aristide's eventual return will depend on the democratic sector's ability to work together.

"It's not enough for the labor unions, the peasant organizations, the political parties, the press, student groups, etc. to coexist," says one Haitian analyst. "The sector that wants change must create a movement that will take advantage of the opening provided by the mission. Without that direction, there will be little gain."

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