HAITI watchers say there has been an important opening in the stalemate that has followed international efforts to negotiate the return to power of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide since the military overthrew him last September.
Two developments have created the window of opportunity. First, the Organization of American States (OAS) plans to send no less than its secretary-general to Haiti this month in a revived effort to restore democratic legitimacy there and end an international embargo that has crushed the nation's economy.
Key to the planned visit by Secretary-General Joao Clemente Baena Soares is the assurance that Army Gen. Raoul Cedras will see him. "Because the military is the real power" in Haiti, Mr. Baena wants to guarantee military cooperation in a negotiated settlement to the Haitian crisis, says a high-level OAS official.
Second, both exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and military-backed Prime Minister Marc Bazin have recently formed negotiating commissions to test the waters for a possible meeting between the two men.
It is a classic irony in a nation of constantly shifting political fortunes that Mr. Aristide, who won the first democratic election in Haiti's history, will be negotiating over his return with the man he defeated in that election. Upper-class power
Most observers believe Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, still has majority support among the nation's mostly poor and illiterate population. But his antagonism toward the nation's power base - the upper classes who control the military and business sectors - and his encouragement of class warfare, made him unacceptable to that group.
Mr. Bazin, on the other hand, is an internationally respected former World Bank official who speaks the technocratic language of the establishment. Bazin was installed as prime minister by the Haitian legislature in June with military approval.
Since the Sept. 30 coup, the OAS had sided with Aristide, demanding the president's immediate return to office in Haiti and refusing to officially recognize the de facto government in Haiti.
At the same time, that government has refused to recognize Aristide as president, saying his overthrow was the result of an unconstitutional style of governing that included, among other things, encouraging mob rule by his peasant following.
Though an OAS-brokered deal between Haitian political parties was reached in February, the agreement was unenforceable because the military had not signed on and would not as long as Aristide kept up his constant public attack on military leadership.
But policy on all sides has shifted. All parties now appear willing to sit down at a negotiating table. Francois Benoit, Mr. Bazin's foreign minister, said on a Washington visit last week that Bazin is willing to negotiate with Aristide anytime or anyplace without the precondition that Aristide recognize Bazin as de facto prime minister.
This negotiating precondition of recognition on all sides has been a sticking point previously because neither side officially recognizes the other as Haiti's official leadership. Aristide's ambassador to the United States, Jean Casimir, has said the president would sit at a table with Bazin and General Cedras, but that he would not recognize their legitimacy as Haitian leaders.
Aristide's record in previous OAS negotiations has been marked by what frustrated diplomats called "unreliable behavior." But his apparent willingness to negotiate now is considered a result of international pressure.
The US, for one, has bluntly told Aristide his "time and political viability are running out" as the international community becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the mounting economic toll of its embargo on his behalf, says a US State Department official involved in Haiti issues.
Aristide's previous unwillingness to negotiate with de facto Haitian leaders - military or civilian - is a nonstarter, according to the official, who says: "Bazin has made reasonable statements and it's time to test his good will." A key objective of US efforts, says the official, "is to get Aristide and Bazin in the same room."
Further, the US has softened its demand for Aristide's return to Haiti. Instead, "recognition of [Aristide's] legitimacy as the constitutional president may be enough of a basis for the embargo to be lifted," the official says. Bazin changes equation
The June appointment of Bazin to the post of prime minister, too, has changed the negotiating equation. The OAS maintains that Aristide is the constitutionally elected leader of Haiti and that any de facto government at this time is an extension of the military coup and therefore unconstitutional.
Yet, says a high-level OAS official, "[Bazin's] talent makes a difference.... He's stronger than anyone before [backed by the military] and if you're dealing with someone stronger, there's more chance of an agreement and that's better."
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Saturday ruled that the US can continue to forcibly return to their island home Haitian immigrants picked up at sea as opponents work on a legal challenge to the two-month-old policy. The court said the case will be decided quickly and said the government had until Aug. 24 to defend its policy. Challengers will have until Sept. 8 to make their case.