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Is Manigat a 'Prisoner' of Military? : Weary Haiti Wonders About Army Intentions

February 07, 1988|DON A. SCHANCHE | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, Haiti's strongman, conducted what for him amounted to a public relations blitz this weekend as his provisional government prepared to make way for today's inauguration of a new and controversial civilian president. Namphy's uncharacteristic last-minute rush for headlines left many Haitians puzzled.

In two hastily contrived public appearances within 48 hours of the inauguration ceremonies, the usually publicity-shy general, who has headed the army-led government since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier two years ago, ceremoniously dedicated the emergency repair of a washed-out hillside road above the capital and the hurried completion of a bridge near his hometown in the south.

"Did he rush these projects and make a fanfare over dedicating them to show us that no matter who heads the government he is still in charge?" a Port-au-Prince businessman asked. "Or were they his swan song before he fades away?"

Handing Over Power

The same question in other forms is being asked repeatedly as provisional President Namphy and his officers prepare to hand the reins of government to President-elect Leslie F. Manigat, a political scientist whose election is widely believed to have been manipulated by the army.

"Normally the democratic sector of this country should be very happy because of Manigat's unquestioned democratic credentials," said Gerard Bissainthe, a leading strategist among those who opposed the vote three weeks ago.

Bissainthe recalled that Manigat, a respected international scholar, spent 23 years in exile during the two-generation Duvalier dictatorship, speaking and writing in favor of Western-style democracy. Many saw him as the best and the brightest of Haiti's presidential contenders.

Vote Questioned

"But the circumstances of his election force you to ask, is he a prisoner of the army?" Bissainthe said.

The new president was the only major candidate who stayed in the race after the bloody collapse of an attempt at free and fair elections last November, when voters were gunned down at the polls. The other four leading contenders bitterly protested the military role in the massacre and boycotted the Jan. 17 election.

Despite an overwhelming voter boycott--a U.S. official said that no more than 12% of the eligible voters went to the polls--and voting irregularities throughout the country, the Namphy government announced 35% of the voters had taken part in the election and that they favored Manigat by 50.3%.

To Bissainthe and other discouraged opposition leaders, the circumstances strongly suggest that Manigat, selected by the army in an army-run election and placed in office by the army, will obey army orders in governing the country.

Opposition View

Equally important, according to former presidential front-runner Marc Bazin, now the top opposition leader, is that no matter how independent he is, Manigat's military sponsorship implies that he will be powerless to act against treasury-draining military abuses such as control over smuggling--including the transshipment of U.S.-bound drugs--exercised by some army leaders since the days of the Duvaliers.

But Manigat's staunchly independent personality and liberal political background, coupled with widespread uncertainty over his real intentions, have raised doubts. There is some speculation the army chose the strong-willed democrat to signal a military retreat from politics.

"Namphy may retire after the inauguration," an American official here said, echoing Manigat's assertion that the army truly "wants to get rid of the burden of political responsibility."

A senior civilian official of the provisional government, close to both the army and Manigat, also predicted Namphy's retirement, and a withdrawal of the military to the barracks. "What's their option?" he said. "If they wanted to rule from behind the scenes, would they let someone like Manigat in?"

The idea that Manigat, known for decades as a fiery independent and a bitter opponent of authoritarian rule, has willingly become a puppet of the military strikes even his most severe critics as improbable.

Bissainthe, a former revolutionary Roman Catholic priest who taught classics at the City University of New York during 18 years of exile, said: "I'm convinced he's a democrat. I'm convinced his real goals are to establish democracy in this country. I believe that completely."

Needs Freedom

But he added that Haiti's army has a long history of power-grabbing and political manipulation, and he remains doubtful that the military will give Manigat the freedom he must have to convince Haitians and aid-giving nations such as the United States that Haiti is at last on the road to democracy.

"We are Doubting Thomases," the former priest said. "We want to see and feel before we believe."

Despite the skepticism, however, most Haitians interviewed in Port-au-Prince in the past week said they are too tired to protest the army's unconstitutional election behavior.

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