WITH the United Nations-brokered deadline for the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide now passed, Haiti seems caught in a giant geopolitical game of chicken.
On one hand, Haiti's military leaders appear to believe that Washington's attention span for foreign policy is short, and that the United States will lose interest in Mr. Aristide's plight before economic sanctions cripple their poor Caribbean nation.
On the other hand, the Clinton administration is betting that Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and Col. Michel Francois will break under sanction pressure before Haiti's economy is completely wrecked.
Haiti's authorities ``must not delude themselves into thinking they have destroyed'' the process for returning democracy to the island, President Clinton said last week.
Caught in the middle of this battle is the poverty-stricken Haitian population. With unemployment already hovering around 70 percent, and some 10 percent of Haitians dependent on foreign charity for food, their lives will almost surely worsen for the foreseeable future.
``Already, CARE is saying they will shortly be unable to provide charity food because they will lack the gas for transportation,'' says Douglas Payne, director of Western hemisphere studies for Freedom House.
More direct threats of US military intervention might tip the waiting game in favor of Aristide and the Clinton administration. Clinton officials continue to insist that all options are open.
But considering the controversy wrought by the Somali intervention, few in Washington believe that the US would send Marines to Haiti anytime soon.
GIVEN the history of US intervention in the Caribbean, it is unlikely that Aristide would want to return via US military force, in any case. In calling for a complete commercial embargo of Haiti in last week's UN speech, Aristide seemed to be hoping that more pressure might cause Haitian people to overthrow Messrs. Cedras and Francois.
``That type of national mutiny has happened before in Haitian history,'' Mr. Payne notes, most recently with demonstrations accompanying the downfall of strongman Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Unrest usually starts in the Haitian hinterlands. The provinces are controlled by section chiefs surrounded by ``attache'' terror forces. If uprisings occur, Cedras and Francois don't have the power to come rescue the section chiefs, Payne judges.
Of course, if things had gone according to the UN-brokered pact between Aristide and the military, signed at Governor's Island, N.Y., last summer, Aristide would have returned to Port-Au-Prince Oct. 30. But military leaders has effectively refused to give up power, and violent repression, including the assassination of Aristide's justice minister, have stranded the leftist priest-president in the US.
With Aristide absent, opponents moved to seize more power over the weekend. Pro-military political groups planned to name their own government yesterday. The authority of Aristide's own prime minister, Robert Malval, has expired along with the deadline for the exiled president's return, according to pro-military spokesmen.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for unconditional compliance with the existing Governor's Island pact. UN representatives in Haiti are trying to organize a meeting this week between Cedras and Aristide officials. But critics complain that more negotiations would simply play into the Haitian military's hands. They say that Cedras never meant to give up power under the Governor's Island agreement and signed simply to get sanctions that were then in place lifted, and to buy time.
``The more the negotiating game is played, the more encouragement they have to renege,'' says Rachel Neild, a Haiti expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Ms. Neild says while Clinton officials have made strong statements about the need for Aristide's return, the administration seems to be still making up its mind what its policy is.
She charges that the White House has equivocated on the need for a complete commercial embargo, as Aristide has called for. At the same time, it has pushed Aristide to make his own concessions - among them, opening up his government to include opposition leaders not tied to the military.
In Congress, Haiti got swept up in the reaction to US casualties in Somalia and became part of a partisan political debate about the future of US intervention around the world.
``Haiti has become the focus of this larger debate, which is really not about Haiti at all,'' Neild complains.