Haitian Military Tightens Its Grip
Army's supporters work to eliminate democratic opposition while the UN considers stronger actions
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — AS the international community talks of tightening sanctions on Haiti, the military rulers here are maneuvering to consolidate their grip on the country and remove any vestiges of the government of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Two years after forcing Fr. Aristide into exile, the Army is using its well-organized, but carefully disguised network of contacts in the private sector, the parliament, and a watchdog organization to further weaken democratic forces and put right-wing elements in positions of authority once held by Aristide supporters.
``The Army has been successful at co-opting various sectors,'' says a grass-roots organizer in hiding since the coup. ``They've disguised their spokespersons as businessmen, as parlimentarians, and as leaders of our grass-roots movement, but none of them represent the voice of the people. We want Aristide back.''
One logistical obstacle the military has dealt with efficiently is the process by which a new prime minister would take office. The job has been vacant since Aristide's choice, Robert Malval, resigned on Dec. 15.
There was speculation that Aristide was close to choosing Mr. Malval's successor this week, since a Haitian legislative delegation is currently in Washington meeting with Aristide, UN Special Envoy Dante Caputo, and officials from the United States State Department. Two leading contenders for prime minister, Education Minister Victor Benoit and opposition senator Julio Larosilliere, are on the delegation, along with Upper House President Firmin Jean-Louis and Lower House President Frantz Robert Monde.
But Deputy Monde, a close friend of police chief Lt. Col Michel Francois, said in a radio interview that Aristide should not nominate a new prime minister until the embargo is lifted. Even should Aristide manage the difficult task of finding a candidate palatable to both supporters and the military, the fractured Haitian parliament must approve the nomination.
A RECENT coup d'etat in the upper house of the Haitian parliament replaced the democratically-elected Senate President, Senator Jean-Louis, with Bernard Sansaricq, an Aristide opponent.
Senator Sansaricq indicated he would begin immediate proceedings to apply Article 148 or 149 of the Haitian Constitution. Either article could be used to legally remove any power Aristide has to govern.
Eight of 13 senators who voted for Sansaricq won their seats in the country's 1993 elections, which have been declared illegal by the international community. The US has already said that the recent Senate elections are not legitimate.
``There's a certain strategy to all this,'' says a diplomatic source close to the negotiations. ``The military is worried about what would happen if a prime minister is ratified. So they are trying to control things in parliament by cutting off the steam before things accelerate.''
Rumors of conflict within the ranks of the military have raised some questions about its solidarity. The transfer of 60 soldiers last month and Army Chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras' occassional differings with Mr. Francois, have caused speculation as to whether the Army is becoming less unified.
Several of the smaller political parties which have participated in two national conferences held in the last month are calling for a constitutional solution that would dismiss Aristide conclusively.
The national conferences - the most recent hosted by an ad hoc group of political unions and religious groups - have involved the military but not the country's larger political parties nor any representatives of the international community.
A less-diplomatic voice in calling for Aristide's constitutional overthrow comes from the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, widely considered to be a civilian arm of the military. With bureaus set up in every corner of the country, the group's raucous demonstrations, accompanied by threats and violence, have effectively silenced the popular voice of support for Aristide.
``We're at a pivotal point,'' says a Western diplomat. ``That explains why violence has been increasing. The military is sending a direct message - don't step out of line.''
Since the end of December, a local human rights group has recorded more than 80 killings. Witnesses have testified to armed civilians and uniformed police entering a home and killing at least nine youth about 6 miles northwest of the capital. The victims were said to be members of a pro-Aristide organization.
The sectors of society best able to shield themselves from politics have been the elite and a large percentage of the private sector that has ties to the military. That may change if the United States' request to the UN Security Council that it impose tougher sanctions on Haiti is carried out.
Already, with daily activity in the capital spiraling to a stop, the economic equation is shifting.
Fuel shortages have reduced service from the diesel-powered generators of the National Electric Company to 10 hours a week. Banks and schools operate only three days a week. Radio stations have cut back broadcasts 50 percent.
A loss of revenue has sparked the low-profile business community to take action. Protesting the UN embargo and threats of further sanctions, members of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce voted two weeks ago to close their doors. Shopkeepers are scheduled to reopen Feb. 10.
``Enough is enough,'' said a former officer of the chamber. ``Haiti is more than just one man. We can't let the whole country go down the drain just for him.''