Haiti opposition sorts out storm debris - and political strategy

A tropical storm that swept muddy floods throughout this capital city's ramshackle slums this weekend forced Haitians to turn their attention - temporarily at least - from the country's two-week-old political crisis. Thousands of Haitians had marched Friday in support of an opposition demand for the provisional military government to resign by today.

But the group of 57 political and civic organizations that has successfully orchestrated the past two weeks of strikes and demonstrations had to divert its Saturday meeting from political to disaster-aid strategy.

And now - as Haitians dig out from the mud and wait for the water to recede from their homes - those watching the political situation are waiting to see how the call for the resignation of the ruling National Council of Government will be resolved.

Two main questions hang in the air: Will the group of 57 regain momentum in pressing demands for the resignation? Or will other factions of the divided opposition prevail in their strategy to force the council to ensure democratic elections within a constitutional framework?

The political crisis began June 29, when the coalition of center-left and left-wing groups called for strikes to protest two government decrees that suspended a labor union and the country's independent election council. The council had been given responsibility under the nation's new Constitution for organizing the first democratic elections since the Duvalier family dictatorship began in 1957.

After 22 people died in strike violence between civilians and military troops, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, Haiti's chief of state, capitulated on the demands. But the reinstated election council said that because of the violence, it would not work with the government. And the opposition began to call for the ouster of the ruling council, saying it could not be trusted to preside over the move toward presidential elections.

The government has opted to quietly sit out the crisis. It has made no public statements during the past week and has kept the troops in the barracks.

Meanwhile, the opposition has been unable to unite on any alternative to the government or on a strategy for continuing the pressure. One political group has called for more national strikes, but the group of 57 has said it will look for other pressure tactics. Strikes disrupt the peasant economy and make it difficult for the average Haitian to feed his family. Friday's antigovernment march drew some 40,000 to the streets, but not the 100,000 to 200,000 that one leader had said would clearly show continuing wide-spread support.

This may mean the ruling council's strategy of quiet waiting is having some success in defusing the crisis. But it is unclear how elections can be worked out if the independent election council won't work with the government. The Constitution calls for installation of a democratically elected government by February 1988.

A current Cabinet member, who asked not to be identified, says the ruling council has made serious political errors - mainly, he says, because the military group is unfamiliar with the flexibility needed in a civilian democracy. But, he added, the council should be given credit for its conciliatory gestures.

The civilian demostrations have acted as a check on the government, he says. And this type of pressure, rather than reorganizing the government a few months shy of the scheduled November elections, should be the method used to assure the elections are carried out.

A prominent opposition leader admits that the council will never resign without protracted public unrest, and that sustaining that unrest could be dangerous. Negotiation with the council might be acceptable, he adds, but it would be a delicate job for opposition leaders.

``We have to be very discreet ... because they [Haitians who are largely illiterate and unsophisticated about democratic methods] want everything and they want it violently. Everything is black and white, and if they know you are negotiating, they think you are selling them for a price,'' he says.

But Marc Bazin, a centrist presidential candidate, says the demands for the government's resignation should be dropped immediately. ``The [council] has met most of the original demands ... The people don't understand give-and-take is the essence of democracy,'' he says.

If political unrest continues, Mr. Bazin says, he will consider encouraging the election council to call the vote immediately. If the people want a new government sooner than the scheduled February inauguration, he explains, then elections should be called now rather than trying to replace the government.

Meanwhile, the US has continued to assert that the best way to carry out a democratic transition is through elections under the Constitution. Richard Holwill, deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of Caribbean affairs, was here Thursday for informal talks with both sides of the controversy. He reiterated the State Department's statement that foreign aid would be jeapordized if ``there were an abandonment or perversion of the transition to democracy.''

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