Uncertainty Looms Over Haiti As Premier Threatens to Resign

ONE month after the expired deadline for exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return, Haitians express diminishing hope for a resolution to the 26-month-old crisis.

Prime Minister Robert Malval was in Washington last week meeting with President Aristide and US officials to discuss the future of his country. When the conservative businessman accepted his position in September, he said he would stay in office only a short time. But Aristide is still in exile, and Mr. Malval is threatening to resign if the political stalemate is not broken by Dec. 15. He has urged tighter UN sanctions.

``If Malval resigns, it will certainly retard the process,'' a US diplomat says. ``We can't make progress on the negotiation's front without it. But that doesn't mean we're giving up.''

The military still holds the cards, diplomats here say, and maintaining the current status quo is in its best interest. According to one diplomat, military has stockpiled enough fuel to ride out the United Nations oil and arms embargo, imposed six weeks ago, for at least six months.

UN officials, and members of Malval's government, have urged him to stay, but his opponents are demanding his immediate resignation. One foreign diplomat says the only move that could entice the prime minister to stay would be the return of the UN mission, which was expelled in October. The military has given no indication that it would welcome or tolerate a new UN presence.

For ordinary Haitians, however, conditions grow increasingly grim. Electricity has been cut back to several hours a day in the capital, while other major cities have been without power for more than a month.

``I don't want to leave my country,'' says Peraldo, a law student who insisted on using a pseudonym. Following two years of political persecution from the military, including a recent arrest, Peraldo has applied for political asylum to the United States. US immigration will decide his case next month. ``I have to be realistic. I have already lost two years of school and I don't know when I will be able to resume my studies here. I'm hoping in the United States I'll at least have a fighting chance at an education.''

Banko, a leader of a students' group considered subversive by Aristide opponents who has been arrested twice, expresses similar frustration. ``Malval hasn't been able to govern since he took office. So if he resigns and that moves the situation forward, great. But there will be a lot of pressure on him to stay.

``If his resignation aggravates the situation, if it plays into the hands of the military, which it looks like it will, then we can expect even more trouble,'' he says.

In a speech delivered to the nation last week, the prime minister spoke of the grim economic situation facing his country. If the political dilemma is not resolved by the end of January, he warned, $400 million in international aid will be lost. Malval said Haiti's currency, the gourde, has been devalued 10 percent in the 15 days before his speech, while the price of food staples increased more than 20 percent in recent weeks.

For Djimet, factory worker who lost his job, inflation and unemployment have made it difficult to provide for his family. Like others in his neighborhood, he is an avid Aristide supporter, but keeps his political views private for fear of retribution.

``I heard news recently that made me very anxious,'' he whispers. ``Haiti's friends - France, Venezuela, Canada, and the United States - plan to meet in France Dec. 13 and 14. The [Haitian] information minister announced on the radio that from these meetings Aristide may be able to return within two weeks. Let's be realistic - what are the chances of that really happening? All that will do will make the situation here even worse. The military will go at it again.''

The international community holds the military responsible for much of the bloodshed in the country, which increased dramatically in October. Having successfully blocked Aristide's return, the Army has eased up, and a graduating calm has settled in.

Although there was a brief easing in gasoline rationing, shortages still pose a major problem. Public transportation is sporadic and expensive. The Army has taken control of distributing the remaining in-country reserves, but even that is expected to run out by the end of the year.

``I don't know what I'd do with gas, or even money if I had it,'' Peraldo says, slapping his hands in the traditional Haitian style. ``There's no security to go anywhere or do anything.''

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