Can Haiti Put Down Roots?

New president Aristide has a mandate, but military and anti-military factions in Haiti may keep that country uprooted.

AFTER 200 years of suffering as ex-slaves, 34 years of Macoute terror, five years of waiting for nonviolent elections, and two years of Zinglindo (``insecurity'') - Haiti has welcomed its first democratic president. Jean Bertrand Aristide brings a personal dedication to promoting democracy and reducing poverty in his country. Latin America's poorest country appears to have bullish economic prospects. Haiti has the most open economy, the lowest inflation, the lowest debt, and a small state role in the economy. Its new president has a strong presidential mandate for the action he deems necessary to combat political terrorism, corruption, and economic stagnation.

Yet, the joy could be ephemeral if peoples' longstanding frustration can't adjust to the slow democratic process. Haiti lacks basic institutions, like a functioning criminal justice system, which Aristide will have to construct. Furthermore, all bets will be off if Aristide cannot maintain the stability on which all political and economic plans depend.

Even before taking office, Aristide has had to contend with power plays within his core of advisers, real and imagined coup attempts, continued military atrocities - to say nothing of difficult policy decisions.

Aristide's highest priority is pursuing justice against the terrorists of prior regimes. While he has had every good intention of building a criminal justice system, the highly organized atrocities committed against both criminals and many innocents may suggest the new president can't or won't control terrorists in his ranks.

While foreign aid has been increasing - including a rise of $28 million to $82 million from the US, the official aid donors have made clear that another round of dechoucaj (``uprooting'') could imperil further assistance. Such threats were helpful in persuading the army to support the 1990 elections.

Following the Jan. 6 coup attempt, tens of thousands took to the streets, successfully intimidating any putschists. A smaller number undertook a now ritualistic practice of dechoucaj - the creole term that has come to mean destroying not only the Macoutes, but any perceived enemies.

Unfortunately, many non-Macoutes were also victimized, including Hubert de Ronceray's home and Marc Bazin's offices (both were presidential candidates). A former human rights activist, Interior Minister Joseph Maxi, lost his home even before 70 Macoutes were lynched. According to Maxi, the motive was vengeance because last November he fired as mayor of Port-au-Prince, the girlfriend of Evans Paul, alias ``K-PLIM,'' Aristide's charismatic campaign spokesman and current mayor.

After the false coup rumors of Jan. 20, dechoucaj also burned down a house in Carrefour where persons were rumored, falsely, to be celebrating the coup. The party was actually celebrating an 18-year-old's birthday, and two musicians were among the six killed. Later that night, the army killed 11 civilians after they attacked the small police station in Carrefour. Given the earlier crime, the lack of crowd-control capability, and the apparent complicity of Aristide aides, the army may be less culpable.

Nevertheless, reform of the military is Aristide's main mechanism for achieving justice. The army leadership has been incapable or unwilling to control many military elements, such as the major in St. Marc commanding the southern Artibonnite valley. On Jan. 19, Gervet became the setting of another scandalous peasant massacre by the army, like those in the the post-Duvalier period in the Artibonnite towns of Jean-Rabel, Labadie, Piate-Delug'e, and Liancourt.

On his Feb. 7 inauguration, Aristide began decisively - obtaining the resignation of the most anti-democratic elements in the military. Most of these seven senior officers came from the older generation of officers educated before the Military Academy was closed during the 1960s and early 1970s by dictator Duvalier.

By dint of his overwhelming electoral mandate, Aristide's inaugural proposal appears to have been accepted. Consequently, the younger generation of officers that decided to support the electoral process are in charge of what has been for the past five years Latin America's most brutal and corrupt army-mafia.

Raoul C'edras, the same age as Aristide (37), headed the military's Committee on Electoral Security, and was appointed the new military chief of staff and commander-in-chief. Unlike most of his army predecessors, C'edras comes from a middle-class, educated family from Jeremie. He also has religious ties to the progressive Jeremie bishop, Willie Romelus - a cousin of Aristide's.

Aristide's plans to end corruption threaten the military's illegal financial interests. A major confrontation will emerge as the new government seeks to limit army involvement in cocaine running from Colombia to the US, the state enterprises in flour and sugar, customs administration, and the transport of contraband goods that have actually benefited the Haitian economy.

Yet, the military can rightly complain that Aristide has not strictly condemned the dechouke vigilantes, beyond lately calling for ``vigilance, not vengeance.''

The historical impunity for state terrorists should not be extended to street gang Jacobins, no matter how pervasive and understandable their fear of more Macoute massacres. If Aristide can plead for time and patience for the army to keep the Macoutes at bay while he builds a new criminal justice system, his presidency will long be remembered with favorable gratitude.

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