US and Haiti Face-Off Over New Restrictions And Emergency Decree
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — OVER the last few weeks, the whisper of a military invasion of Haiti has been gaining volume throughout the country.
But two days after a June 12 speech in which Haiti's de facto President Emile Jonassaint declared a state of emergency in response to US saber-rattling, calling on the Haitian people to mobilize for the defense of Haiti, his announcement remains only rhetoric. The promised explanation of what a ``state of emergency'' involves has yet to come.
Some see the state of emergency as a precursor to a ``state of siege,'' a declaration included in the Haitian Constitution that allows for martial rule - including censorship, curfews, and arbitrary arrest - under threat of an invasion or civil war.
Others surmise that President Jonassaint called a state of emergency because a state of siege requires the approval of parliament, which would be difficult to garner from the fragmented body not able to muster a quorum since the beginning of this year. Jonassaint's presidency was approved by less than a quorum when he was installed May 11.
Most think that the state of emergency is an empty threat and a knee-jerk response to President Clinton's June 10 announcement banning commercial flights and most financial transactions between the United States and Haiti, aimed at ousting the military.
``Clinton, by pushing so hard, wants to start a civil war,'' says Mireille Durocher-Bertin, a close associate of the Haitian military. ``The state of emergency is a normal self-defense reaction for a country threatened with military intervention.''
US Ambassador William Swing doesn't see it that way. ``This is the latest effort of a spent force,'' he says. ``The purpose of our message is that coup dtat will fail, and democracy shall endure.''
Haitians seemed uninterested if not indifferent to the June 12 presidential decree. Customary weekend activity melted smoothly into normal weekday activity on June 13.
``The state of emergency ... was a pep talk, business as usual,'' says Haitian Senator Bernard Sansaricq. ``You won't see any effect in the street, just that the Army should be more vigilant and that the government advises the population of a possibility of intervention and asks citizens to remain mobilized.''
The canceling of commercial flights will effectively isolate the island nation. American Airlines, which controls 60 percent of the traffic in and out of Haiti, will close on June 24, along with Air Canada and Haiti Trans Air.
For the moment, Air France says it will continue to fly. Canada and the United States have asked their nationals to leave. France has not. About 2,000 American citizens and about 7,000 more with dual citizenships live in Haiti. As of June 14, all American Airlines' flights out of Haiti are said to be sold out.
But daily survival in Haiti is getting more and more difficult. Thousands of people depend on the estimated $2 million to $3.5 million that comes in from financial transactions from abroad.
Clinton's new policy restricts transfers to $50 per month per person. ``If they can only send $50, don't bother,'' laments a man waiting in line at a Port-au-Prince bank. ``Fifty dollars will be gone in two or three days with the inflation from the embargo.''
Even Haitians with funds are experiencing problems obtaining cash. The Central Bank has limited personal withdrawals to $200 per transaction. Exceptions are granted at 4 to 5 percent interest rate.
Some foreigners fear that increased hardships will translate to increased animosity against those responsible for the sanctions.
United Nations personnel had their radios and handguns confiscated last week at an illegal roadblock by more than 20 armed civilians. Within the hour, a Canadian was arrested at this same place, beaten, and held incommunicado for two days.
Haiti has already weathered a nearly total trade embargo enacted May 21 and a nine-month old arms and oil embargo imposed just two weeks before the failed October deadline for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to power.
``If it's an embargo like the previous one, where smugglers are getting richer, we don't want it,'' said a close associate of exiled President Aristide on June 12. ``If it's the real thing, though, I see it as the light at the end of the tunnel.''
But there are no signs that the military seems any closer to conceding now than it did last fall.
Colonels can occasionally be sighted on the balcony of military headquarters or passing across the square by the National Palace to play a pick-up game of volleyball on police headquarter grounds. The high command routinely snubs journalists, who risk arrest for using their cameras.
High-ranking officers continue to gloat while they sit on top of their huge fuel reserves. In spite of recent measures to close the border with the Dominican Republic, the Haitian military controls much of the contraband traffic of fuel and goods.
So much gasoline is available in ``Kuwait City,'' a section of downtown Port-au-Prince, that the price per gallon of gasoline stabilized at about $8 over the week of June 5.
``This state of emergency gives [the government] wider powers to crack down,'' economist Leslie Delatour says. ``It's a sign from them to the international community that says, just because you turn up the heat doesn't mean we're going to roll over and play dead.''