Haitian Military Chief Ready to Step Down
While justifying the coup that ousted Aristide as `absolutely necessary,' Cedras acknowledges it is time to `untangle the knot'
PORT-AU-PRINCE — HAITI'S tradition of military-backed governments may finally be on the way out. After months of international pressure, the man behind the coup that toppled the country's first democratically elected government is preparing to step aside.
In a rare interview, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras spoke with the Monitor about his decision to go along with the restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
"Everyone has to play their role," he said in a lengthy, relaxed interview at the Grand Quartier General, the military headquarters. "It's no longer OK for every person to see themselves as an individual. If you agree that this is a good plan to finally untangle the knot that's kept this country tied up, then everyone has to work together."
At the same time, General Cedras justified his leading of the coup that ousted President Aristide in September 1991. The coup was "absolutely necessary," because, he says, Aristide encouraged violence, particularly against the military, and his style of rule was not democratic.
There have been numerous attempts to find a negotiated solution since the crisis began, but the Army has frequently blocked the process. Many Haitians believe that it wasn't until the United Nations imposed an oil and arms embargo on Haiti, revoked visas, and froze assets of the coup leaders that the Army was forced to change its position.
Four days after the embargo started, Cedras flew to New York to meet with the UN mediator and exiled President Aristide.
"It wasn't the embargo that forced us to play our part," Cedras says. "The moment arrived when we said, `OK, we have to find a solution for this crisis, because the country can't continue as it is.' "
According to the July 3 agreement, the embargo will be suspended as soon as the president's choice for a prime minister is ratified by the parliament.
"I have deep reservations about what that means for the rank and file soldier," says a former adviser to Aristide's Cabinet. "Without that pressure, what will motivate the military to stop ruling with an iron hand?"
The military quickly intervened with force when pro-Aristide demonstrations were held while negotiations were taking place in New York, and in the days that followed.
"There have been so many demonstrations, which have been disruptive, that I can't believe that now they will not create disorder," says Cedras explaining why demonstrations can't be tolerated.
But when asked why the military tolerated and participated in demonstrations for his departure to and arrival from New York, he jokingly says that it was not a demonstration, but rather "I have a very large family, and they just came out to greet me."
"In general, demonstrations have been broken up so quickly that it's impossible to say whether they would have turned violent," says Ian Martin, deputy executive director for the United Nations/Organization of American States Civilian Mission currently deployed in Haiti.
"What we are concerned about and have expressed to the military," says Mr. Martin, "is that people arrested in demonstrations have, in a number of cases, been beaten, sometimes severely, when in military custody."
When questioned about disciplinary action in regard to alleged human rights violations, Cedras freely volunteered to supply an official list, but the one he offered gave the names of 74 military personnel court martialled for desertion, not for human rights infractions.
"Since 1986, generals have come and gone, but the institution has stayed the same," says a Haitian historian. "I have never seen the Army do anything it's supposed to do. How will that change now?"
A crucial element in preparing the country for Aristide's return will include restructuring the Army, which is part of the July 3 accord. There has been talk about deploying international technical military assistance to create a separate and independent police force. Though to date, no official decision has been made.
The 1500-member Port-au-Prince metropolitan police force is currently under the command of Col. Michel Francois. He was also one of the main forces behind the political coup, and has been accused of complicity in numerous beatings and repression of pro-Aristide supporters.
"The press can make Michel Francois a monster, but they can also make me an angel. We are not beating people in prison," Col. Francois told the Monitor in another rare interview. "A person can be beaten during an arrest if he is violent when we are arresting him. But when he is arrested and in jail, he is not beaten."
The July 3 accord also calls for Aristide to name a new police chief. But Francois would neither confirm nor deny he would leave his position during the Monitor interview. "We must have a transition. I can give my liberation to a new police force, but you are not going to kick me out, say you don't need me anymore. Who is going to educate the others? The new force must be made with the force in place."
"There will be problems in the transition," says Gerard Pierre Charles, an economist and leader of a popular national organization. "The Army will have trouble accepting what they're supposed to do because Cedras has been speaking from both sides of his mouth. But the movement to return Aristide is global. And that's its strength."