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Haiti's Democracy in Limbo

Amid tenuous talks to revive democracy, Haitians stock up on supplies, watch their currency fall

ONE way to monitor the political climate in Haiti is to check the value of the Haitian gourde to the American dollar. It used to be a flat 5 to 1. Today the fluctuating exchange rate is a daily reflection of the state of negotiations to resolve Haiti's 21-month-old crisis.

When democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a military coup on September 30, 1991, the Organization of American States imposed a hemispheric embargo on Haiti in order to return the country to democracy. In spite of the embargo's weak enforcement, the gourde fell as people, worrying about short supplies, scrambled to buy on the black market. Following the June 23 imposition of a United Nations ban on oil and arms shipments to Haiti, prompting more concern, the value of the gourde drop ped to 17 to 1.

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While there is an appreciation for the power of the US dollar, there is less respect for the power of the US government. Haitians have a tendency to blame all their problems on the United States, including the 1991 coup. A 19-year US military occupation that began in 1915 left the legacy of a repressive military. Past dictatorships have been supported by past US administrations.

The US has not recognized the de facto government. But neither has it recognized the majority of some 40,000 boat people who have fled Haiti as political rather than economic refugees, denying them the chance to apply for political asylum. Current US policy, supported by a June 21 Supreme Court ruling, is that the Coast Guard can continue to return intercepted Haitians without offering them a chance to seek asylum.

Nonetheless, Haitians have also hoped that the US would provide a solution to the crisis. Many believed one phone call would have their president reinstated. But as weeks turned to months, it became clear that their desire didn't correspond to actions by Washington, where officials worried about the threat of boat people flooding US shores.

When a United Nations special envoy was appointed to mediate negotiations last December between the different power blocs, hopes for a solution were renewed. But again, months went by with no results. The value of the dollar increased while the Haitians' spirits deflated.

Haitians are now in limbo. They are waiting to see if the talks now under way in New York between the head of the Haitian armed forces and Fr. Aristide will finally resolve the crisis.

But there is widespread skepticism that the international community can, in fact, do anything short of invading to help restore democracy.

The military is waiting to see to what extremes the international community will go to restore democracy. The OAS embargo has been defied. It is too early to know if the UN sanctions will be enforced. In spite of the presence of a UN-OAS peacekeeping force, the military has continued to rule repressively, according to human rights activists and political observers.

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In fact, the day negotiations began in New York on June 27, the Haitian military attacked parishioners at a Catholic mass who were chanting for Aristide's return. Throughout the countryside, people were beaten and arrested.

Fed up with the lack of results from negotiations, Haitians are cautiously taking matters in their own hands. A national strike was held June 24 to demand Aristide's return.

The strike was only partially respected in the provinces, but in Port-au-Prince, people peacefully stayed home. If negotiations fail again, analysts here worry that next time people will take to the streets, and they won't be so peaceful.

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