Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Haiti's New President Woos Army

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Haiti's New President Woos Army

Article excerpt

THE Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who won an overwhelming victory in Haiti's first democratic elections last December, takes office today before the National Assembly - and under the watchful eye of the powerful military.

The new president's early morning speech kicks off four days of festivities ranging from musical concerts to a ceremony at Fort Dimanche (the national prison) that will commemorate the victims of repression.

It is both a hopeful and ironic beginning. The same Army that is widely acknowledged to have participated in the deaths of thousands at Fort Dimanche during the 29-year Duvalier-family dictatorship will also be providing security for that solemn ceremony.

In a country where violence and politics have so long been linked, security provided by the Army - or the lack of it - will likely determine whether Haiti's nascent democracy survives, analysts and diplomats say.

Fr. Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest who won the election in part because of his long record of outspoken criticism of Duvalier rights abuses, knows that the only way he can gain safety for himself and his new government is by gaining Army support.

Army Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham ordered his troops to squelch a Jan. 6 coup attempt by Roger Lafontant, ringleader of the Tontons Macoutes, a paramilitary gang set up under the Duvaliers. It was a gratifying moment for those who thought the Army might side with Dr. Lafontant. But recognized divisions of loyalty in this 7,000-strong military have left many suspicious of the Army's long-term allegiance.

"The Army reflects the society," says a United States diplomat. "They are split. There are many soldiers, who, deep down, don't believe in democracy any more than they believe in Aristide. It was the immediate, violent reaction of the people against the coup that forced the military to choose the side they did. But who's to say what will happen next time?"

Aristide has praised the Army for its good conduct during the electoral process, but warns that problems with the Macoutes have not ended with Lafontant's arrest.

"The Macoute system has been disconnected," he says. "But as individuals, the Macoutes still exist. A lot of them are still roaming the countryside, and it's more dangerous because we don't know where they all are."

In a national speech last Friday, General Abraham denounced recent violence, promising security for the inaugural festivities. Hours later, a home for boys run by Aristide was set on fire. Four youths were killed.

Aristide immediately accused the Macoutes, suggesting that such acts were provocations to incite conflict between the people and the Army. But in a show of solidarity at the funeral, Abraham sat to Aristide's left, just as he did at a press conference Aristide gave upon his return from a recent two-day visit to France. …

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