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Haiti: Pushed to The Edge

5 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

Most of Haiti was asleep last week when Emile Jonassaint, the island’s octogenarian puppet President, went on television at 2 a.m. to announce a national state of emergency. The country, Jonassaint declared, was “faced with extreme danger, denigrated, ridiculed, humiliated, strangled.” Warning of “invasion and occupation,” the President installed in office by his military handlers last month suggested that fellow Haitians might look for protection to the voodoo god of thunder.

It will take more than the almond-syrup libations with which voodoo priests placate the god’s wrath to save Haiti from U.S. anger if the thugs who run the country do not voluntarily give up power. The once lackadaisical trade embargo is beginning to bite now that U.S. ships are forcibly halting all sea traffic and the land border from the Dominican Republic has been virtually shut down. Two new measures aimed at toppling the strongmen who deposed democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 — suspension of all commercial air traffic from the U.S. beginning this Saturday, and a freeze on Haitian assets, including bank accounts and credit cards — have provoked panic and pain.

The Clinton Administration hopes to succeed by driving a wedge between the military men who control the government and the business elite who support them. “Up to now,” says Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, “because of the slipshod nature of sanctions enforcement, an awful lot of the Haitian establishment not only could live with the embargo but, perversely, quite a few were profiting from it.”

That is no longer the case. As bills piled up on their desks, businessmen spent most of the week frantically shifting money around by phone. Some, waiting in long lines at the bank, scanned local papers for advertisements offering special U.S. flights or Florida mortgages. “The fact that there are no planes is a major psychological blow,” said a Port-au-Prince entrepreneur. “The freezing of bank accounts is killing businessmen. Some who were opposed to Aristide returning are finally sobering up.”

The other prong in Washington’s strategy is the credible threat of military intervention. No one knows whether Clinton will follow through with an invasion, but the steady drip of leaks has created an atmosphere of frantic speculation that, combined with a dearth of hard facts, makes for effective psychological war. Amid all the uncertainty, Port-au-Prince is swept by sensational rumors, such as last week’s report that the U.S. embassy had been passing out iridescent paint so that Americans could identify their homes to invading troops.

Washington is prepared to wait some weeks while sanctions strangle the economy, also watching to see whether a rattled elite decides to work out some skin-saving deal. But increasing numbers of Haitians are convinced that if sanctions fail to dislodge the military, the President’s tough posturing may have made invasion inexorable. Even though Clinton has yet to make a decision, there is a growing consensus that he has pushed matters to the point where he cannot afford to back down. “There’s almost no way out,” said former Ambassador to Haiti Ernest Preeg, “except military intervention.”

That prospect must surely unsettle the Haitian regime, troubled by its own internal feuds. Haitians were shocked last week when the brother of powerful police chief Michel Francois went on the radio in the Dominican Republic to call for the resignation of military boss Lieut. General Raoul Cedras. While Francois quickly disavowed his brother’s statement as “offensive and inopportune,” the police chief’s associates confirmed a growing rift between the two junta leaders.

The government could only muster contradictory signals and empty gestures in response to the invasion panic. Jonassaint’s state of emergency was roundly dismissed as a national joke when the military failed even to declare a curfew. Derision turned to surprise when, in a city where nothing works, pothole-repair crews and street cleaners suddenly made an appearance along several main streets in Port-au-Prince — presumably to demonstrate, however peripherally, that the government is capable of doing something.

On Monday the national legislature was declared open, but nobody showed up. On Wednesday the regime attempted to stage a show of force that quickly turned to farce as nervous soldiers goose-stepped in ragged fashion around the presidential palace to the sound of wheezing clarinets. The display served only to block traffic and remind onlookers how woefully the island’s defenders are trained.

Shotgun-toting attaches, the irregular ruffians who back up the military, boasted that they would fend off any foreign invasion. “We turned their boat back once, and we will turn them back again,” claimed a gunman. “When the Americans land, we will be issued grenades and M1s. We are supposed to start firing right away to keep control of the population.” He said his superiors had warned that if a U.S. invasion succeeds, “they will make certain the attaches get no jobs and don’t eat” — an effective threat in a country where only the luckiest have work or regular meals.

Against that surreal backdrop, the rest of Haiti seems to be holding its breath. Despite the apocalyptic fears of the BMW-and-beaujolais crowd, a vast, silent constituency eagerly awaits the political resurrection of the priest who is referred to in hushed whispers as “the man whose name we cannot speak.” In villages throughout the country, prayers are offered in the churches each Sunday for the lifting of the embargo. “I would like to see the invasion,” said Smith Elmont, a boatwright from the small coastal village of Luly. “We all want the Americans to come. Then there will be justice and we will live in peace.” $

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