New Haitian Government Defiant

Military-backed group takes charge in face of sanctions threat; people ponder US response

DESPITE its illegal installation, international condemnation, increased United Nations sanctions, and an empty bank account, the newly formed Haitian government is up and running.

The military-backed president, installed May 11, and his new team are convinced that, given time, the rest of the world will see that their government is the answer to Haiti's 32-month-old crisis.

``I can only hope, wish, that they [the international community] will change their position and give us time to show that something good will come out of this government,'' Chief of Staff Mireille Durocher-Bertin says.

Foreign diplomats, however, say that is a dream. They use adjectives like ``ludicrous'' and ``ridiculous'' to describe the constitutional coup that brought elderly Supreme Court Chief Justice Emile Jonassaint to power as Haiti's provisional president.

The move was seen as a blatant act of defiance coming on the heels of widened UN-sponsored sanctions and the threat of a worldwide trade embargo if military leaders refuse to step down by May 21.

Mr. Jonassaint, a key figure in drafting Haiti's 1987 Constitution, claims the document legitimizes his presidency because of a clause stating that the Supreme Court chief justice should succeed a presidential vacancy. Jonassaint has promised to organize elections so that his replacement may take office by February 1995. But he has violated the Constitution by assuming the responsibilities of president and prime minister, citing exceptional circumstances.

The UN refuses to recognize Jonassaint's government, which is backed by the military that has ruled Haiti since the 1991 expulsion of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and by a group of anti-Aristide legislators. The United States announced it will revoke visas and freeze assets of anyone participating in this government.

But the defiant Cabinet that entered the National Palace on Tuesday has not been deterred. Some professionals backed away from Cabinet positions because of US pressure, but those who did accept took a nationalist stance, shrugging their shoulders in a ``so what'' attitude. Many, like Ms. Durocher-Bertin, lost their visas months ago when earlier sanctions went into effect.

But, apart from disapproval from the international community, rifts are emerging even among the seemingly solid group of those who oppose Aristide. Some anti-Aristide politicians who do not hold positions in Jonassaint's administration are criticizing this government.

Meanwhile, Haitians wait on the international community to act against Jonassaint and the military. Many in working-class neighborhoods say they would welcome the US 82nd Airborne.

Haiti's poor are not as interested in analyzing the political machinery as they are in finding relief from physical hardships and protection against daily attacks by armed civilians. An average of 50 killings per month have occurred in the capital since the beginning of 1994.

``I don't know much about this new guy, Jonassaint, says a young man in halting English. ``He's got to be the same as the rest if the Army supports him.

``I don't call what we have a life,'' he says. ``We have to sleep during the day, because there is so much shooting at night. If I saw foreign troops today, I'd ask them where they've been.''

Many analysts say the US, which has threatened to use military force to restore Mr. Aristide, would probably wait to see what impact the UN sanctions had before striking.

``Whatever they do will require a certain amount of foreign consultation and domestic consensus building,'' economist Leslie Delatour says. ``These guys took power because they've burned all their bridges, so they figured why not go for it. They think the US posturing is still largely bluffing.''

Still, few are willing to rule out the possibility of US armed intervention. In diplomatic circles, nearly all observers give a 50 percent probability to an invasion.

The last time the US marines occupied Haiti, in 1915, they stayed for 19 years. ``This is no quick, bing-bang-bong operation,'' says one Haitian politician. ``If there's an invasion, I hope they know by coming in here they've just inherited 7 million welfare recipients.''

President Clinton recently announced a change in the repatriation process of Haitian emigrants, but the policy is still being carried out as before.

Once the new policy is invoked, Gretta Tovar Siebentritt warns, ``people will be pushing to leave, given the situation in the country.'' The Research Associate for Human Rights Watch/ Americas Watch says, ``This is just a minor adjustment of a policy of nonadmission of Haitians into the US and nonrecognition of Haitians as refugees in the first place.''

More than 750 refugees have been returned to Haiti since Friday - 50 percent more than the total for the last four months. If the trend continues, the US may feel compelled to jump into action.

``We just don't have that many options left,'' says one Western diplomat.``We've played most of our cards. The only thing left besides intervention is canceling regularly scheduled passenger flights and money transfers from abroad.''

The international community is reluctant to do that because those measures have a greater impact on the poor or middle class than on their intended target - the military.

Already, the new sanctions have cost 10,000 people in assembly factories their jobs. No one, not even representatives of governments that support the sanctions, think they have much chance of succeeding.

So the Jonassaint government will wait it out. They too, have few options. Said one foreign observer, ``Their philosophy is, if we have to go, better to do it with a sword in hand than our tail between our legs.''

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