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U.S. Help Could Harm Haiti, Diplomats Warn

Caribbean: Security agents sent to protect president make him look dependent on Washington, observers say.


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. moves to prop up Haiti's fragile democracy may actually undermine President Rene Garcia Preval and international efforts to help this impoverished nation, diplomats here warn.

The arrival earlier this month of 40 heavily armed U.S. diplomatic security agents to protect Preval was the latest incident in what some allies view as a series of shortsighted measures to ensure that Haiti will not become an embarrassment in the six weeks before the U.S. presidential election.

"The baby sitters are here," one Latin American diplomat quipped. But other countries that have worked closely with the U.N. peacekeeping mission to maintain order in Haiti saw less humor in the situation.

"This was done out of fear that something is going to go wrong in Haiti and the Republicans are going to use it," said one angry European diplomat. "It was not done in the long-term interests of the United States or the short-term interests of Haiti."

Haiti has been widely considered a foreign policy triumph for the Clinton administration. U.S. troops intervened two years ago to restore the democratically elected president who had been deposed in a 1991 coup, stayed through the selection of his successor--Preval--in the cleanest balloting in Haitian history, saw the new president inaugurated and withdrew.

That image of success has been tarnished in recent weeks. First, 20 former soldiers--part of the 7,500-member army that was dissolved when democracy was restored here--were arrested for plotting an attack on the Presidential Palace. Then, commandos in the uniforms of the old army attacked police headquarters and the legislative palace, where Parliament has been debating a controversial proposal to sell off government companies.

Revenge for these incidents was the suspected motive when two leaders of an opposition party linked to the defunct armed forces were brutally slain last month. The United States launched a military training exercise here immediately after the killings to show "that we want Haiti and the government in Haiti to succeed," a Pentagon spokesman said at the time.

The effect, however, has been exactly the opposite, said Jean-Yves Urfie, editor of the weekly newspaper Libete, which is closely identified with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "They are making Preval look dependent on the United States," he said.

"It was clear that something had to be done," said one diplomat, who like most of those interviewed spoke on the condition that he not be named. "But the question of how it was done . . ," he added, shaking his head as his words trailed off.

More recently, members of the presidential security forces--similar to the U.S. Secret Service--have been suspected in the opposition leaders' assassinations. Informed sources said the evidence against them, which includes recordings of radio telephone conversations, is convincing but not conclusive. No evidence has been made public, and no formal accusation has been lodged.

Diplomats said privately that the U.S. imposed the American security agents on Preval, creating an embarrassing situation for him. He is already struggling with economic problems and stinging criticism from his popular predecessor, Aristide.

"It was very heavy-handed," one European diplomat said. "They told the Haitians, 'This is what we know, and this is what we are going to do.' It's spitting in the face of Haiti and saying, 'You are an occupied country, and you don't count.' "

Both U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing and Preval insist publicly that the Haitian government requested the U.S. agents to retrain the presidential security forces.

"There has not been any suggestion from the evidence at our disposal that there was any question of loyalty to [Preval]," Swing said.

U.S. sources, however, have said that the agents were sent because of concerns for Preval's safety as he purged the security forces selected by Aristide.

Two high-ranking security force members have been removed from their posts and will probably be transferred abroad, according to sources. A dozen more are expected to be dismissed.

Libete harshly criticized the actions. "If they really have proof, why didn't they publish it?" a front-page editorial asked last week. "The mass that voted for Preval has the right to know what is going on around him."

Further, diplomats argue that the U.S. action was not needed because the Preval government had already shown its willingness to punish law enforcement officers who commit crimes. For example, three policemen were charged with murder this summer in another case.

"There are more pressing matters in this country," said Philippe Beaulne, first secretary at the Canadian Embassy. Foremost are concerns about the inexperience of the 5,300-member civilian police force and Parliament's unwillingness to pass laws to permit the sale of nine government companies. Millions of dollars in international aid is being held up until economic reform begins with the company sales.

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