Haitians Tense As Strongmen Defy Pressure From Washington

IF President Clinton convinced the US public last night that invading Haiti had become a necessity, the military strongmen of this island nation seem - at least outwardly - unimpressed.

In the face of US saber-rattling, the rulers hold daily military-training exercises, take periodic trips to the provinces, and aggressively denounce the presence of foreign ships in their territorial waters. They run propaganda on the national television station, repeating images of the Panama invasion and anti-embargo demonstrations.

At the same time, increased pressure from the United States is being matched by increased repression inside Haiti.

Members of the growing corps of international news media held slight hope, when called to the National Palace on a moment's notice Wednesday evening, that the government would declare the resignation of Army commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Philippe Biamby, and Police Chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois. The leaders have been rumored to make an announcement by Sept. 20.

Instead, provisional President Emile Jonassaint, surrounded by his Cabinet, kept the press waiting for more than two hours and then read a five-minute prepared text. He denounced what he referred to as a ``declaration of war'' by the world's most powerful country. We haven't done anything against anyone,'' he said.

This week the US has been increasing its military presence, moving ships to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and fighters to Haitian waters. The USS Eisenhower and USS America left Norfolk, Va.

Several times this week helicopters hovered over Port-au-Prince Bay, panicking civilians and the military.

During the wee hours of the morning Wednesday a US aircraft passed low overhead. According to one soldier, some of his peers stripped to their civvies and bailed out of their barracks, thinking it was the invasion.

The aircraft, however, wasn't dropping troops, but thousands of leaflets. As people went into the streets the next morning, they saw photos of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide littering the ground.

``It's to emphasize that part of this whole policy is Aristide's return,'' said a US spokesman.

But Haitians carefully avoided the leaflets out of a fear of reprisal. One woman, seeing the leaflets on the ground, said, ``I'd like to pick one of these up, but if I do, they'll kill me.'' In several parts of the city, witnesses said armed civilians did beat up people who tried to collect the pamphlets.

Since last month's assassination of Roman Catholic priest Jean-Marie Vincent, up to a dozen priests are thought to have joined the many activists already in hiding. The Roman Catholic Church-sponsored Peace and Justice Commission is warning people not to come to its office. The consortium of human rights organizations, the Haitian Human Rights Platform, has closed.

And on Wednesday, the government announced a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew to be enacted that night on ``main roads,'' not designating which ones they were.

``Who knows what goes on in the hearts and minds of these people,'' one foreign priest said, referring to the military and its allies. ``They only see their enemies and the enemies are to be eliminated.

In a condition under the reconstruction plan agreed to in last year's United Nations-sponsored Governors Island Accord between President Aristide and General Cedras, the Haitian Army and police, now a joint force, will become two separate entities after Aristide's restoration.

This division was the last piece of legislation drafted by the Haitian parliament in consultation with then Justice Minister Guy Malary. The plan was shelved after Malary's murder two weeks before the Aristide's aborted return last October.

Mr. Jonassaint, in his speech, also confirmed his government's commitment to holding legislative elections in December ``followed by presidential elections after a relatively short delay.''

The US has other plans for elections in Haiti. They have designated money for elections, but set no date, and outlined a plan that will take 22 weeks to implement, which includes processes such as establishing an electoral board and voting stations across the country. US officials insist they will release aid money only when the legitimate government is restored.

As a result of a meeting in Paris last month of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and major donor countries, one US AID official indicated that the international community would be willing to pick up the majority of the $82 million dollar debt if the political crisis here can be resolved. They would also help with elections, legitimizing and strengthening the legislative branch - which the official referred to as a ``total mess'' - and privatizing eight large state industries.

Such promises, whether they come from the Haitian or a foreign government, however, are clouded by a layer of indifference. People listen to radio reports of the impending intervention, but with half an ear. They watch the encroachment of US frigates that are frequenting Haiti's territorial waters, but with one eye.

They seem instead to be more focused on where their next meal will come from or how to avoid the violence.

``I don't understand,'' said one young man as he gazed out at the US frigate Aubrey Fitch circle across the bay. ``We have no food, we have no water, we just have leaflets. What can that do for us?''

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