Army Remains Haiti's Wild Card As Leaders Accept New Talks

Diplomatic progress on Haitian stalemate fails to address concerns about military hard-liners

THE soldiers at the palace are looking at us in a funny way; they are not happy."

This unguarded remark by an aide to Haitian Prime Minister Marc Bazin came on the eve of talks over the weekend with Dante Caputo, a United Nations special envoy whose goal is the restoration of democracy here, including reinstatement of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The comment underscores a widespread fear that the Army's unruly rank and file could easily derail any pledges Haiti's military and civilian rulers may have given Mr. Caputo, a former Argentine foreign minister.

Caputo left Haiti Sunday saying he was "encouraged by the results" of his meetings with the Army chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, and Mr. Bazin, head of the military-backed civilian government.

He said both gave him letters accepting his proposals for the dispatch of hundreds of observers from the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS) and the start of talks to solve the crisis set off by the September 1991 coup that overthrew Fr. Aristide.

But the text of the letters was not disclosed, and many Haitians suspect that Bazin and General Cedras are playing for time to get the international community off their backs.

By announcing it had promised Caputo its support "in the framework of the Constitution and national sovereignty," the Army high command was seeking to establish an opt-out clause for itself, one Haitian political analyst said. A refusal to tolerate any breach of the Constitution or sovereignty was precisely the pretext used by the Army and its political allies for blocking an OAS-brokered accord last year for an observer mission and Aristide's reinstatement.

Caputo maintained that he "found the Army cooperative." But he admitted he was disappointed that Bazin refused to stop yesterday's vote to fill 10 of the 27 seats in Haiti's Senate. The elections, boycotted by most political parties, were expected to give Aristide foes a strong majority. In Port-au-Prince yesterday, a widespread voter boycott left streets largely deserted.

The UN secretary-general, the OAS, and several governments including the United States all condemned the vote as illegitimate and called for its cancellation.

Bazin also delayed before handing over his own letter, which to judge from an aide's comments may have stopped short of being the unequivocal authorization Caputo said was needed to deploy the observers. Bazin's past record may be instructive: The OAS dispatched 16 observers to Haiti in September, but they have since been confined to Port-au-Prince, awaiting Bazin's permission to leave for provincial capitals.

Caputo said the additional observers could start arriving "within a matter of days, not weeks" and that talks could begin in two weeks. If the military and government obstruct negotiations, Haiti will face tougher sanctions than the existing, leaky OAS embargo put in place shortly after the coup, he added.

"I wanted it clearly understood that this was a contract, and if the contract was not respected, you would have consequences," Caputo said. Some OAS-member governments have been calling for a UN embargo; Canada's prime minister last month went so far as to propose a UN naval blockade on petroleum supplies.

The dispatch of 17 US Coast Guard and Navy vessels Friday, ostensibly to intercept a growing number of Haitians fleeing by boat, was widely seen here as additional warning to the military.

Pressure also was reportedly put on the Army high command when it received a visit Jan. 7 from a senior US Marine Corps officer, Maj. Gen. John Sheehan.

Caputo stressed that the weekend talks were limited to discussing a framework for dialogue and the observers, and did not broach such thorny issues as Aristide's demand for Cedras's removal and a date for Aristide's return.

There was also no discussion of the likely reaction of the Army's rank and file, he said.

The Army high command's concern on this was revealed by the swiftness of the denial it issued last week in response to a US newspaper report that Cedras had already sent the UN a letter agreeing to Aristide's reinstatement.

This kind of report was "liable to sow unrest," a senior officer said.

The 1991 coup against Aristide was initiated by hard-line sectors in the Army's rank and file and there is a danger that any concessions to international pressure by the high command could trigger another coup attempt, foreign diplomats say.

A business consultant said he did not rule out the possibility that the most rabid of Aristide's opponents in the private sector would put up money to encourage a coup.

"There is also a fear that, in the event of a decision for Aristide's return, the rank and file could go berserk and start killing off his supporters," one diplomat from an OAS member-state.

In the last week, Port-au-Prince has also buzzed with rumors of a preemptive move by Cedras against the hard-liners.

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