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Haiti's President Asks Citizens to Avoid Mass Exodus to U.S.

By Douglas Farah
The Washington Post


After an unusual diplomatic effort involving the incoming Clinton administration, Haiti's exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has made an appeal to his countrymen aimed at preventing an expected flood of boat people to the United States.

At the same time, the country's military leadership, which has ruled the country since violently ousting Aristide 15 months ago, has agreed in writing for the first time to recognize the populist leader as president and accept his eventual restoration to power, according to sources here and in Washington.

Aristide, who in 1990 won the presidency in Haiti's first democratic election, made his appeal on a Voice of America broadcast Monday night as part of a complex diplomatic initiative coordinated in part by senior members of the Clinton transition team.

President-elect Bill Clinton's campaign promise to change President Bush's policy of intercepting and returning Haitian refugees has prompted fears of a mass exodus of Haitians following the inauguration next week.

To avert that, the Clinton team, acting principally through J. Brian Atwood, a former assistant secretary who heads the transition team at the State Department, has been working to broker an agreement that would end the long-standing political impasse in Haiti and allow Aristide's eventual return.

Sources said the military high command signed a general document given to the United Nations committing themselves to accepting Aristide's return, without setting a specific date. Until now the military leaders, led by Gen. Raoul Cedras, had vowed never to let Aristide return.

In exchange, under a complicated deal still under negotiation among Aristide, the military, the United Nations and the Organization of American States, Aristide would grant a blanket amnesty for any action related to his overthrow, choose a prime minister from a list of candidates submitted by the opposition and agree not to return immediately, according to the sources.

To create a climate that would allow Aristide to return, the Clinton camp is negotiating with Aristide to get him to agree to write a letter to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali accepting multinational observers, who would be spread across the country to try to stem political violence and acts of repression.

One knowledgeable source said the idea was to "replicate" the massive foreign presence before and during the 1990 presidential elections, which helped guarantee free, nonviolent voting.

As part of the Clinton team's effort, the president-elect is to issue a statement supportive of Aristide and a return to democracy in Haiti, the sources said.

The steps, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, are important because they represent progress on issues that have blocked a settlement since Aristide's overthrow and the imposition of an OAS trade embargo on Haiti. Still under discussion, according to the sources, is whether the embargo would be lifted incrementally or all at once.

It remained unclear whether Aristide's appeal had come in time to slow the expected exodus of thousands of people, waiting by already built boats, for Clinton to take office Jan. 20.

Several sources who have witnessed the ebb and flow of earlier negotiations, while admitting more progress has been made this time, said that until the deal was fully implemented, there was a chance it would blow up.

They said that details on the U.N. observers have yet to be worked out, and the military remains divided between the high command and the enlisted men, who are said to fear the plan.

"The Haitian oligarchy has 200 years of experience in dealing with international pressure," said a source close to Aristide who has been involved in the negotiations. "They are masters at saying yes to everything and then doing nothing." In the past, Aristide also has backed off of agreements reached.

In his speech, broadcast in Creole on the Voice of America and retransmitted here by Radio Metropole and other radio stations Monday night, Aristide sounded generally conciliatory. But he also lashed out at Cedras, as he has in the past.

"We will start to rebuild the country, and we shall prepare ourselves to harvest the crop of democracy that will come about with your remaining in the country, resisting peacefully and without violence," Aristide said.

"I am quite sure that if (Haitians) stay home and remain mobilized, not remain passive, and don't leave the country, ... with the commitment made by President-elect Clinton, jointly with the last steps taken by the U.N. and OAS, we will soon see the changes we are looking for," Aristide said.

Aristide said that after a new prime minister was chosen, a new cabinet would be named, and then he would set a specific date for his return.

"I am not going to proceed unilaterally because we are talking about a consensus and of unity," Aristide said.