A MONTH after a coup attempt and troop mutinies, Haiti seems peaceful. But the Western Hemisphere's poorest country is still threatened with more violence, say informed Haitian and United States sources.
``It's calm on the surface,'' says a well-placed Haitian who correctly foresaw previous troubles in Haiti. ``But the situation remains very explosive. It's what we call `the mouth of the wolf' - you don't know when it might snap shut.''
There is no money in government coffers, the troops are grumbling, political leaders are waiting to see which way the wind blows, and supporters of the former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier are active underground, this source says. President Prosper Avril survived last month's coup attempt, but he is now very dependent on the 1,100-man presidential guard to maintain order and his rule, this source says.
Fritz Longchamp, director of the private Washington Office on Haiti, says the inherent danger of the situation is made clear by reports that a close friend of President Avril who was in charge of an anticorruption drive was murdered last weekend. Mr. Longchamp says some suspect that members of the presidential guard were responsible.
Others say it could have been remaining military dissidents or supporters of the previous Duvalier dictatorship. In either case, Longchamp says, ``it's a precarious situation.''
``Everyone here is asking what happened to the US support for Avril which was expected,'' says the well-placed Haitian in Port-au-Prince. ``They're wondering if Washington hasn't stepped back from its earlier nod toward Avril. This is hurting him.''
Congressional and Bush administration sources say consultations are under way to provide about $12 million worth of grant food aid directly to the government as a signal of support for the progress President Avril has made on fighting drugs and moving toward a path to democracy.
According to these sources, the House of Representatives is fully behind the administration's suggestion and most concerned senators support it. Thirteen key senators, ranging ideologically from Alan Cranston (D) of California to Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, wrote Secretary of State James Baker III last month urging ``a tangible response'' by the administration to Avril's moves, in the form of food aid or other economic support funds.
But opposition in the Senate Appropriations Committee is holding up the aid, congressional sources say. A Senate source opposed to the aid says some are worried that Avril's commitment to democratization is only in form, especially since he has not committed to a date for elections. Longchamp says many in the democratic opposition in Haiti share this worry.
On the other side, a second Senate source says the US has to recognize the positive moves Avril has made.
``He's not perfect, but he's been forced to take moves that extend our interests.... Yes, there remains a kernel of suspicion, but it's time to show some support.''
``This government is no democracy by any stretch of the imagination,'' adds a State Department official. ``But Avril has made significant progress and he is headed in the right direction.''
Administration and congressional sources point to Avril's swearing in of an independent commission charged with preparing for elections in late April, and his very forthcoming speech to them, as evidence of sincerity. They also cite earlier moves to crack down on drug trafficking and corruption.
A House aide with long experience on Haiti says the US is not throwing its whole lot behind Avril with this small grant, nor should this aid be seen as easing pressure for real progress in the dialogue between Avril and the democratic opposition on moving toward democratic elections in a reasonable period.
It would, however, be a ``terrible mistake to do nothing now,'' the aide says. If the situation deteriorates, he says, the US is leaving the door open for a return of Duvalierist forces. ``And that's a dead-end street.''
The well-placed Haitian, who is well connected at the presidential palace, says Avril recognizes he must now win in the political arena and move toward elections. But Avril feels ``he can't move on all fronts at once. He needs to take a breath,'' the source says.
US aid to Haiti's government has been frozen since the brutal disruption of elections by pro-Duvalier forces in late 1987. That cutoff, plus canceled loans and aid from other donors, is estimated to have cost Haiti up to $150 million or about a year's government budget. (The US never stopped its approximately $40 million in humanitarian aid to Haiti, which is delivered through private organizations.)
Aside from the recent use of Haiti as a drug transit point, Haiti has a direct impact on the US via the flow of refugees. According to a former Haitian government official now living here, the US probably spent an estimated $250 million last year dealing with Haitian boat people trying to reach the US or those already here. That cost will rise if the economic and political situation continues to deteriorate, he says.
This should give Washington a profound interest, he argues, not only in supporting a smooth political transition, but in building an economy that can employ potential refugees.