Big Stick and Soft Voice: US Delves in Haiti Politics

NOW, the hard part in Haiti.

The United States is moving from the military to the political phase of its occupation here. This shift will be far more prolonged and far more difficult than the projection of military force, US and Haitian political analysts say. It involves a delicate balance.

On the one hand, a big stick to restore order; on the other, a soft voice to nurture and hasten the time when Haitians take back control of their own country.

``We're entering the political phase, and this becomes tricky,'' says Georges Fauriol, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign-policy think tank based in Washington. ``It depends not so much on our ability, but the ability of Haitians. In the final analysis, some of this is out of our hands.''

The first test came this week with the return of several Haitian legislators and the reconvening of parliament.

The US was careful about the symbolism in returning 11 legislators who had fled Haiti after the 1991 military coup. The legislators flew to Haiti on a privately chartered jet rather than on US military transport planes.

The US Army was also careful to emphasize that it was securing the area around the Haitian parliament and not the building itself. ``It's a Haitian institution,'' says US Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager. Its security is being left to Haitian forces.

Yet there is no denying who is in charge. The overwhelming power of the US military carries great political weight. That fact is lost on no one.

``They say it's cooperation,'' says Haitian Senator Rony Mondestin, standing on the Tarmac of Port-au-Prince's international airport, waiting for his colleagues-in-exile to return. And there is cooperation from the Americans, he adds, but ``it's cooperation with muscle.''

US muscle appears in several subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

On Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of Haitians gathered on the open terrace of the Haitian Red Cross building to catch a glimpse of their returning legislators. Blue posters in Creole appeared for the television cameras focused on the crowd. But the posters did not come from the Haitians. They were being handed out by US troops. The message: Work well together so your future generations can have a better life.

But the crowd soon ignored the posters and sent its own messages. Supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sang a rhythmic protest song against the triumvirate of military men who overthrew him: Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, police chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois, and Army Chief of Staff Philippe Biamby.

``Mwen pap pale, Mwen pap pale, Michel Francois, ki limin yon lamp, nan mouda Aristide. Lamp la tounin nan mouda.''

Roughly translated: ``I'm not talking; I'm not talking. But Michel Francois who turned the lamp [an attack, in voodoo belief] against Aristide has had the lamp turned against him.''

Guy Telemak, an unemployed student, confides to a bystander about the public demonstration: ``Before the US soldiers, we couldn't do that.''

While the US tries in subtle ways to influence public opinion, its assertion of force is straightforward. After the agonizing episode where US soldiers stood by while Haitian authorities beat civilians in front of television cameras, the US Army has strengthened its public stance. It will interfere and do what is needed to create order, a US Army spokesman says.

That includes a gun buy-back program, where Haitians are invited to turn in their weapons to the US military in exchange for cash. So far, few Haitians have taken the offer. As of Wednesday, 142 weapons had been turned in. Apparently, residents of Port-au-Prince still feel the situation is too volatile to give up their guns.

US Secretary of State Warren Christopher briefed the United Nations Security Council yesterday on the operation in Haiti. A vote in favor of lifting the sanctions on Haiti once elected President Aristide is returned to power was expected later yesterday, according to the Associated Press.

While pro-Aristide feeling is running high, it is by no means universal. After the Haitian parliament convened, Aristide supporters began running through the streets to cheer. But the demonstrators came near the headquarters of the ultraright nationalists known as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti. FRAPH opposes the Aristide government in exile. Its supporters, wielding sticks, quashed the demonstration.

Three shots rang out, wounding one Aristide demonstrator. Eyewitnesses blamed FRAPH. But by the time the US military arrived, someone had taken the man to the hospital, and FRAPH supporters were nowhere to be found. It took several minutes for the troops to get a Creole-speaking US soldier to piece together the stories from the people shouting from the street and several minutes more to secure the area and quiet the crowd.

``We are making a difference and we are making progress every day'' in stabilizing the capital, the US Army spokesman says.

But the terrain is shifting under the US military's feet. The simple equation - US troops in, Haitian military leaders out - may not work much longer. The new terrain is quietly becoming more political, more complicated, and more muddy with each passing day.

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