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Haiti's Opportunity

IN meetings with Haiti's top military leader this week, UN envoy Dante Caputo is presenting an offer the current regime should not refuse.

The deal reportedly calls for Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and the Army's high command to step down in exchange for an amnesty covering political crimes committed since he led the coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991. The political amnesty is part of an overall package to smoothe the way for President Aristide's return. In addition, the proposal calls for appointment of an Aristide-approved prime minister and government; gradual lifting of economic sanctions; police reform; and ec onomic aid. Aristide would return from exile after these conditions are met.

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At root is the principle of returning authority to the country's first democratically elected president. Aristide's few months in office did not represent the tidiest transition toward more representative government; following the coup, some diplomats were surprised at the depth of support for the military takeover, even among groups who supported Aristide during the election. Yet he handily beat his opponent, current Prime Minister Marc Bazin. The people, especially the poor, who had been politically vo iceless during Haiti's nearly two centuries as a nation, had spoken.

Moreover, this may be the best deal the Army-backed Bazin government gets. Human rights groups say that since the coup, the government has killed up to 3,000 opponents. It isn't hard to picture resentment among Aristide's supporters building to explosive levels. Up to now, the military has held out for a general amnesty, which covers all crimes, rather than a political amnesty.

Some Aristide supporters point out that a general amnesty is unconstitutional and could lead to violence. That outcome would gain either side nothing. A narrower political amnesty, coupled with a regional peacekeeping force to ensure safety, may be distasteful to many; but given the country's corrupt judicial system, this amnesty, coupled with guarantees of safety and exile, may be the only way to administer any semblance of justice.

Rejection of Mr. Caputo's latest package is likely to lead to even heavier economic sanctions against Haiti, bringing further hardship to the hemisphere's poorest country.

Aristide himself has a long way to go to instill confidence about his desire to govern in accord with Haiti's Constitution. Still, his return as president and adherence to the UN-brokered agreement could open the way for badly needed economic aid and help in building democratic institutions that could lead the nation from its troubled past.

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