ON January 31, 1986, the White House mistakenly heralded the end of the 28-year Duvalier dynasty in Haiti, announcing that Jean Claude ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier had fled. The Haitian dictator actually did jet-away to exile in France a week later, but Washington's errors of judgment and policy toward the impoverished Caribbean nation have continued. General Prosper Avril, a US ally who recently ordered prominent opposition leaders arrested, beaten and exiled, is the latest Haitian rogue to have duped Washington. State Department spokesmen expressed surprise and dismay following the military regime's crackdown, which began Jan. 20. If genuine, their professions prove just one thing: America's foreign policymakers were the only ones who didn't see it coming.
Haiti's opposition leaders and business community, Caribbean diplomats and Church leaders, and human rights groups all have long questioned Avril's commitment to democracy. A steady stream of violence - some political, some random - has become so institutionalized during the 16 months since Avril seized power that Haitians refer to the period simply as ``the Insecurity.''
Until now, Washington has been eager to support Avril, who pledged upon ousting fellow army commander Henri Namphy that he would guide Haiti to ``irreversible democracy.''
Taking Avril at his word, Washington last year restored direct aid to Haiti. Such assistance had been suspended by Congress in 1987 following an election-day massacre in which thugs wielding machine guns and machetes butchered 34 would-be voters. That the initial aid shipment - $10 million worth of wheat - arrived late and was a type not normally milled at Haiti's national flour mill did little to detract from the symbolic show of support for Avril and his tenuous steps toward free elections.
Given Washington's record on Haiti, it isn't surprising that Avril, a former Duvalier confidant, figured he could crush dissent without fear of repercussion. After ``Baby Doc'' fled, Washington extended recognition to a Duvalier-appointed junta headed by General Namphy. Washington's response was muted in 1987 after presidential contender Yves Volel was killed in front of the Port-au-Prince police headquarters - as well as when Namphy temporarily stripped authority from an independent commission charged with administering the ill-fated November 1987 vote.
Congress did cut off aid following that election debacle, but just two months later Washington sanctioned the election of Leslie Manigat, though the vote was widely regarded as a sham (95 percent of the electorate stayed home). Washington continued normal diplomatic relations with Port-au-Prince after Namphy ousted the figurehead civilian president in June 1988.
In spite of the recent crackdown, Avril still insists that a series of elections scheduled for this year will proceed. Local voting is slated for April, followed by legislative elections (July and August), and presidential balloting (October and, if necessary, a November run-off). In any case, the forced exile of a half-dozen opposition leaders, including presidential hopeful Hubert de Ronceray, ensures that the elections will be neither open, free nor fair.
Even if the exiled politicians are permitted to return, Avril's actions indicate he will gladly consent to intimidation by the military and Tontons Macoutes, the Duvaliers' paramilitary goon squads. Indeed, the crackdown only followed a pattern of government repression: two opposition leaders jailed for 10 days last February because they criticized electoral proposals, three others detained and beaten in November, and 16 pro-democracy Presidential Guardsmen arrested and expelled from the military in December. If and when the polls open, another fraud- and violence-ridden farce is more likely than a fair transfer of power.
US officials say they are rethinking America's Haiti policy. Changes - initiatives to isolate Haiti - are overdue. With access to basic services restricted to Haiti's ruling elite, certain sanctions could leave the poverty-stricken masses untouched. But as the spotlight on the Caribbean isle dims, it may again be business as usual. As usual, the people of Haiti will come out the losers, their dreams of democracy hopelessly deferred.