US Tightens the Screws on Haitian Elite

The Clinton administration has frozen all Haitian assets in US banks and banned US commercial flights to Haiti

AS Haiti's military leaders cling grimly to power, the Clinton administration has begun trying to fracture elite Haitian society via pressure on wealthy civilians to abandon the military and reach accommodation with ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Thus United States-led economic sanctions have been bolstered in recent weeks to directly target the money and mobility of Haiti's upper crust. This screw was tightened considerably on June 22, when President Clinton ordered a freeze on all Haitian assets in US financial institutions.

``This certainly makes it clear to the elite that they will not escape the consequences of supporting coup leaders,'' a US official says. Officials insist that evidence already exists of serious discontent among the Haitian privileged class. But they decline to list this evidence in public, and some analysts believe any effort to topple Haiti's junta by hurting alleged civilian paymasters is problematic at best.

``This idea that six families suddenly control everything in Haiti is nonsense. There is a middle-class base of support that is very resistant to Aristide,'' says a Haitian expert who has been involved in the US effort to promote democracy in that country. The attempt to specifically squeeze the wealthy is a refinement of broad economic sanctions that the United Nations imposed on Haiti May 21. With all trade between Haiti and the outside world now proscribed, life for the poor mass of the Haitian people is fast becoming more desperate, according to reports from inside the country.

US officials admit that broad sanctions are a blunt instrument that causes misery for supporters of exiled President Aristide and, hopefully, the Haitian junta alike.

Indeed, some top military leaders and other Haitian elites appear to be profiting from the embargo via black-market capitalism, particularly in gasoline.

The US decided that sanctions would not really work unless wealthy Haitians could not shop in Miami, their children could not attend foreign schools, and their foreign currency bank accounts were not getting larger. Earlier this month, the US froze bank accounts and denied visas for a list of 600 of the very top of Haitian society, including military leaders. Financial transactions between the US and Haiti were also prohibited.

But a large number of rich Haitians who were not among the 600-odd people on the list were able to skirt these restrictions by wiring money from their US banks accounts to other nations, and then to Haiti.

Thus, on June 22 the White House announced that all Haitians' bank accounts in the US - excepting those of Aristide, his fellow supporters in exile, and other Haitian expatriates - are now frozen. Commercial airline flights between the US and Haiti are also set to end on June 25.

The restrictions are now ``as close to a `smart bomb' financially as we can get,'' a US official said at a White House briefing on the newest sanctions.

Lest there be any doubt about what the US wants the targeted elites to do, the White House has also said that the US would not object if rich Haitians decided to bribe Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and other military leaders to abandon their posts.

The sanctions per se are unlikely to cause a spontaneous revolt in Haiti, US officials admit. Rather, they are intended to create an environment such that a diplomatic breakthrough in negotiations for Aristide's return can be achieved.

``The intent of these sanctions is to send a more powerful message than before,'' the briefing official said.

But some question whether Haiti's military leaders can be driven from power by squeezing their financial resources or getting Haitian civilians to entice them with bribes. The military, some analysts say, is a deeply entrenched power structure that provides money and status not only for its leaders, but all the way down the ranks.

Though graft and corruption are endemic in the military, money is not all its generals are about. Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, a high Army official mentioned with General Cedras and police commander Lt. Col. Michel Francois as a junta leader, is an ascetic who sleeps in spare rooms and is deeply anti-American - at least in part because of a 1989 arrest in the US on immigration charges.

Antipopulist feeling is entrenched in the elite, which polarizes it from the pro-Aristide masses. The White House refers constantly to ``restoring'' democracy to Haiti, yet many analysts say it is a society that has no real democratic experience, even though Aristide was elected by a 70 percent majority.

Haiti's society is ``more amorphous, more uncertain'' than administration actions seem to indicate, notes Peter Hakim, Washington director of the Inter-American Dialogue. In most Latin American countries, movement from authoritarianism to democracy tends to reflect a more broadly based consensus than is currently the case in Haiti, he adds.

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