WASHINGTON — U.S. and other foreign diplomats are making a quiet, 11th-hour effort to encourage Haitian opposition leaders to field a national unity candidate in the Jan. 17 presidential election, American officials say.
The government of Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy is organizing the election after balloting on Nov. 29 was canceled because of an outbreak of terrorism that left at least 34 people dead.
There is a widespread belief among members of Congress and the Reagan Administration that the Haitian army will not allow a free and fair election.
The United States, joined by France, Canada, the Vatican and a personal emissary of former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, are attempting to find a candidate who is acceptable both to the army and the voters, U.S. officials said.
"Time is running out," said Richard N. Holwill, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for Caribbean affairs. "They (the Haitian opposition) better have their act together by Jan. 1."
He emphasized that foreign diplomats have only marginal influence. "The solution has to come in Haiti," Holwill said.
Ideally, he said, a single opposition candidate could be found so that a united front could be formed against the government's candidate, who has yet to be named. Clovis Desinor, longtime finance minister under ousted President Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, has said he plans to run.
Four leading opposition candidates who had campaigned for the Nov. 29 balloting are boycotting the upcoming election rather than lend legitimacy to what they regard as a rigged system.
If the process is perceived by Haitians and the aid donor community as being rigged to favor the status quo, the country would become an international pariah, with reduced access to sorely needed resources of international lending institutions, Holwill said in an interview.
Congress and the Administration are wary. The House has passed legislation to impose an embargo on arms, trade and aid to Haiti if the army ignores constitutionally prescribed election processes. The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation early next year.
In what many Haitians said was an unlawful act, the army dissolved the independent Electoral Council that had laid the groundwork for the November election. Its subsequent decision to handpick a new board, also widely seen by Haitians as unconstitutional, led to charges of army manipulation of the process.
A new election law also permits soldiers to enter voting stations, further undermining the credibility of the system, according to analysts.
After the independent board was disbanded on election day, the United States suspended $77.5 million in economic and military aid.