Haiti has a new set of military rulers today. The coup, hatched late Saturday, was aimed at reversing the increasingly chaotic situation in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.
According to sources who foresaw the coup, the plotters moved against President and Army chief of staff Henri Namphy to consolidate military control over events and prevent anarchy.
But it is not clear whether the new rulers are planning a move toward democracy, or that this will be the last coup as Haiti tries to stagger into the modern world.
Ousted President Namphy had been in office only since June. The military plotters were reportedly alarmed by increasing factionalism within military ranks, a catastrophic government cash shortage, and increasingly brazen human rights violations that diminished the prospects of renewed foreign aid.
Prosper Avril, who proclaimed himself both general and President early Sunday, organized this weekend's coup over the past week by rallying support among the junior officers and noncommissioned officers, sources say. There is reportedly a more reformist attitude among these officers.
Informed Haitians expect that a number of senior officers will be retired in the days ahead. This will reportedly include General Gregoire Figaro, who tallied what diplomats describe as a nasty reputation as Haiti's chief of police.
Mr. Namphy and Frank Roman, mayor of Port au Prince, were reportedly exiled to the Dominican Republic.
According to well-placed Haitian sources, former members of the Tonton Macoutes secret police and thugs employed by Mr. Roman were responsible for last week's brutal attacks on church goers in the capital city, and the subsequent burning of a church. Some reports say Namphy was informed of the attacks. Others say he was caught by surprise, and subsequently criticized for letting things get out of hand.
General Avril has pledged the new government will respect human rights and undertake ``dialogue ... for the sake of national reconciliation.''
This pledge seems aimed at reassuring international donors, particularly the United States. Most nonhumanitarian aid to Haiti was cut off last November when the military disrupted presidential elections. The government faces a budget crisis. Last week, the US issued a strong condemnation of the church attacks and called on Haiti's government to act.
But there will be a good deal of skepticism in Washington and other interested capitals until the new rulers further prove themselves. Informed congressional sources say any easing of US sanctions will require concrete signs that Haiti's democratic Constitution will be respected, and that the government will crack down on those forces terrorizing the population.
The Haitian opposition is even more skeptical. Some members say they don't see Avril as a democratic reformer and fear he will only be a more efficient tyrant. ``The military sees itself as the people of Haiti and will do whatever it thinks is best for its own needs,'' one opposition activist says.
``The situation remains very fragile,'' says a well-informed Haitian with good ties to the military. Until the new government can find a way to unblock the financial situation, he says, everything will be tenuous. Washington's reaction is the key, he adds.
The US was Haiti's largest aid donor and biggest economic market. All US aid to the government is frozen until the US determines that Haiti is back on the track to democracy. Haiti's trade access to the US is also under review because of reported unfair labor practices.
``At a minimum,'' this Haitian adds, ``the US is going to want the head of Jean-Claude Paul before it helps Avril.''
Colonel Paul is under indictment in the US for drug running. He also controls the Dessalines Barracks, the largest military unit in Haiti, which makes him a hard man to remove. A senior Western diplomat adds that the strain in US-Haitian relations probably can't begin to be over ``until Paul is out of there.''
``Avril has the intelligence to get Paul out,'' says a well-placed Haitian. ``Eventually, with the proper guarantees, Paul may accept to retire. But it is unclear if Avril could force him out.''
Avril reportedly helped engineer the departure of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. He was Namphy's right-hand man during the transition to January's flawed vote. As commander of the Palace Guard, Avril organized the coup that overthrew the military's civilian leader in June.