THE long international effort to restore democracy to Haiti took an important step forward this week.
The United Nations and the Organization of American States have tried unsuccessfully before to arrange mediated talks between Haiti's exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the military leaders who overthrew him in September 1991.
That talks involving both President Aristide and Haiti's military chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras actually got underway Sunday as scheduled is seen by diplomats here as a major achievement in itself. An effort by Aristide supporters to set preconditions almost derailed the talks at the last minute.
For security reasons, the talks are taking place on Governors Island south of Manhattan. New York City has the largest Haitian community - some 500,000 people - outside of Haiti.
About 5,000 of them voiced support for Aristide and disdain for General Cedras in demonstrations near the UN as talks got underway yesterday.
The UN Secretary-General's special envoy on Haiti, Dante Caputo, met first with one side and then the other in "proximity" talks. Diplomats said face-to-face talks would follow once a deal was struck. At press time Mr. Caputo, a former foreign minister of Argentina, said the talks have been positive: "I find on both sides a common ground."
If the talks succeed in fixing a date for Aristide's return, many more problems will have to be faced.
"There's the whole question of Aristide's relationship to the military and of what you're going to do about the coup plotters," says Mark Falcoff, a Latin American specialist with the American Enterprise Institute. "How are you going to reassure people who don't like Aristide, and how can he be sure he's going to stay in power? This isn't just a question of Aristide returning."
Both the UN and the United States insist that an international police force is needed to ensure peaceful change and respect for human rights. Neither leader backs the concept publicly.
Caputo says he thinks economic sanctions played a key role in Cedras's June 21 acceptance of the UN offer to mediate talks. In early June the US tightened its sanctions on Haiti, freezing assets and revoking visas of 83 alleged coup backers. Tough new UN economic sanctions that cover oil and arms sales and freeze Haiti's foreign assets took effect June 23.
Cedras, who said he agreed to the meeting to avoid Haiti's economic ruin, promised Haitians before leaving that he would return with "good news." If his view of the situation is shared by Aristide, he said, Haiti will be "saved."
"I don't think any of us knows exactly what combination of carrots and sticks will turn this situation around," comments Mr. Falcoff.
"I've noticed a pattern of cat and mouse that [members of] the Haitian military play with the UN and the US. They've been willing to go back to the table on numerous occasions but we never get anywhere...." he adds. "Let's not rush to say, `Sanctions have worked because we're back to the table.' "
Caputo is similarly cautious. "We are going to work very hard to make possible an agreement," he says, "but these negotiations will depend on the real will of the Haitian parties to find a solution."