PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On the eve of what was to be a crucial vote on an agreement to end Haiti's crushing economic and political crisis, a key Western official was asked how long the accord could hold. Without a moment's hesitation, he looked at his watch.
His reflexive action to measure the agreement's chances in hours and minutes brought laughter from visiting reporters. But less than 10 hours later, the vote set for Thursday was suddenly postponed and the chances of ending the country's misery put in serious jeopardy.
Under immense pressure from the U.S. Embassy here, the National Assembly was set to approve a protocol that would have restored as president, in title at least, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was deposed on Sept. 30, nine months after he was inaugurated as the country's first democratically elected head of state. In exchange, Aristide agreed to the appointment of Rene Theodore, a political opponent, as prime minister and to wait to return from exile for a yet-to-be negotiated time.
Parliamentary ratification of all that would have led to resumption of $450 million in international aid. It also would have ended an economic embargo that has driven large segments of the population to near starvation and all but destroyed the country's industrial and agricultural capacity.
National Assembly President Dejean Belizaire said in an interview Thursday that the vote has been rescheduled for Monday and that the delay was caused by opposition from the interim military government. "They don't have any particular demand," he said of Joseph Nerette and Jean-Jacques Honorat, the figurehead president and prime minister. "But they said they want to make sure all sectors of the country accept and understand the protocol."
This was a veiled reference to Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the army commander, and other military coup leaders. Aristide has demanded that they be tried or exiled for their part in the revolt, although the agreement he signed last month appears to exclude them from any punishment.
Belizaire added that even backers of the agreement want clarified a section of the accord providing for unarmed observers from the Organization of American States to monitor the situation. "That is a 'Trojan Horse' that nobody wants," he said, reflecting a historical fear of foreign intervention in Haiti.
Concern over the Nerette-Honorat position was heightened by reports that opposition to the accord was building in the lower ranks of the army and was threatening to stop the vote even if it meant an attack on the National Assembly itself. "So far, the High Command . . . is sticking by the program," said an official who has close, daily contacts with the military. "But I'm not sure they can pull it off."
Those against the accord are divided by nearly as many motives as there are opponents. Some are driven by fear of a loss of jobs and opportunities for corruption (some Western diplomats say the military and the interim government have siphoned off more than $14 million since the coup). Others see opportunity for political advancement in the defeat of the agreement, while yet others are ideologically opposed to a government headed by Theodore, a onetime Communist.