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With US forces slated to depart, Aristide is under the gun to rule

Haiti's new government has outlined ambitious reforms, but has little time

FIGHTING for lost time, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is trying to squeeze into the 14 months he has left in his term the monumental tasks of securing and stabilizing his country.

With President Clinton calling for the return of 9,000 of the more than 13,000 US troops in Haiti, and the majority of Haitians' patience for dramatic reforms worn thin, the pressure on President Aristide to institute permanent democratic reforms is enormous.

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Haiti's new prime minister and Cabinet, which took office Nov. 8, have outlined an aggressive program that calls for redistributing the country's wealth, increasing agricultural production, decreasing import taxes, improving education, and reforming the judicial system.

But the success of this ambitious program will hinge on the Aristide administration's ability to dissolve public institutions rife with corruption, disarm the thousands still brandishing weapons, and effectively retrain security forces composed of former police and military men.

At stake is not only the future of democracy in Haiti, but a hefty investment by the United States: It has pledged $550 million so far.

``All of this is irrelevant if you don't have security,'' says Ira Kurzban, a US lawyer who works for the Aristide government. ``The cost down the road can reverse the political victory Clinton has scored at home.''

Inside the Cabinet

The 17-member Cabinet includes six ministers from Aristide's administration in 1990, before he was forced into exile by a military coup; seven newly appointed ministers; and three newly created posts. The Ministry of Culture and Information was split into two separate entities. Analysts say the Cabinet is composed of strong technocrats but not necessarily political allies.

``[Prime Minister] Smarck Michel can do a credible job,'' Mr. Kurzban says. ``He's picked a Cabinet that can go to work and seriously address the number of problems facing the country.''

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Reaching out to the business class, which was alienated under Aristide's first seven months in office before the coup, is one of the top issues the new government must address.

Mr. Michel, a successful entrepreneur himself, reassured Haiti's reticent business community during his confirmation by the parliament on Nov. 6 and 7. He promised they would have a major role to play in the country's development as long as they respected the law and paid taxes.

To underscore that commitment, Michel named Maurice Lafortune, recently voted president of the conservative Haitian Chamber of Commerce, as the new Commerce Minister.

``The business sector ... should be delighted,'' says an analyst who works closely with grass-roots groups.

``The government will work to create a stable environment for business, but will not go on a witch hunt to make sure people pay their taxes,'' the analyst says.

But the businessmen, indicating they are still leery of the direction the country will take, has not reopened the dozens of factories closed during the United Nations embargo.

``The business sector is afraid of ordering goods, of stocking up, for fear of being looted and robbed,'' says one businessman who had close ties to the former military-backed government, while acknowledging that the looting stopped more than six weeks ago.

To reach out to those who have complained about being underrepresented, Michel created the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Ministry of the Diaspora. The new Ministry of Public Functions, established to check on state enterprises, historically a haven for extortion and corruption, will be run by the No. 2 man in the opposition socialist party, PANPRA.

But gaining Cabinet representation from Haiti's unions, grass-roots political groups, and peasant organizations has been difficult. Many feel Aristide has compromised too much in his attempts to win over the business class and elite.

``The government went to great lengths to get at least a token member of the popular organizations in the Cabinet,'' said the analyst. ``The organizations flatly refused.''

Hungry for justice

Almost no one here disputes that for the first time in years there is a new sense of security in the country.

But most are wary that the right-wing forces that have fought for years to rule will not easily give up their power.

Meanwhile, Haitians are waiting for the new Justice Minister, Ernst Mallebranche, to establish a Truth Commission. The commission will judge human rights violations committed during Aristide's absence.

``Haitian people in the countryside say they can wait for the economic program, wait for food,'' one United Nations official says. ``But they say they can't wait for justice.''

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