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Aristide Selects Business Leader for Prime Minister

By Tod Robberson
The Washington Post

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - President Jean-Bertrand Aristide informed Parliament Monday that he has selected Smarck Michel, a businessman and former commerce minister, as his new prime minister, sources close to Michel said.

The sources said the selection of Michel was aimed at appeasing the nation's powerful business elite, which generally opposed the U.S. military intervention that led to Aristide's return from exile on Oct. 15. The reported nomination effectively ended a period of international concern about political direction under the newly restored Aristide.

Aristide's ability to build bridges to Haiti's business community is seen as crucial to stimulating badly needed employment and reviving an economy wracked by successive trade embargoes since the 1991 military coup that had forced Aristide into exile.

Michel's appointment had been cited by several knowledgeable sources as a crucial step in winning support from foreign investors and attaining international development funds. Urban unemployment hovers around 70 percent and nearly two-thirds of the country lacks potable water.

At least two U.S.-trained economic experts - former World Bank economist Leslie Delatour and former education minister Leslie Voltaire - had threatened not to participate in key government posts if Michel were not named prime minister, political sources said last week.

Michel, 57, a political moderate who retails gasoline and owns a rice-importing business, has not confirmed publicly his acceptance of the prime minister's job nor has Aristide made an official announcement. But an aide to Michel said he has formally accepted the post and sent a letter to parliamentary leaders informing them.

"The whole country knows him, and all the sectors believe in him," the aide said.

A prominent businessman who attended a lunch with Michel Monday quoted him as saying he would confirm the appointment on Tuesday. A prominent Port-au-Prince radio station, quoting reliable parliamentary sources, said Chamber of Deputies speaker Robert Monde would convene a session Tuesday to begin confirmation hearings.

Both chambers of Parliament must confirm Michel's appointment before he can assume the post from caretaker Prime Minister Robert Malval.

Diplomats said Malval had been the Clinton administration's first choice to lead Aristide's cabinet into an uncertain era of national reconciliation and reconstruction. Malval, however, rejected U.S. pressure to withdraw a resignation he tendered to Aristide last December during a public dispute with the then-exiled president.

An associate of Michel said he had originally rejected the president's offer to head up the government, saying he was "saving himself the aggravation of working with Aristide." Michel served only 60 days as commerce minister in Aristide's first cabinet, in 1991, before quitting. He reportedly had a number of disputes with other members.

Although Michel was a political sponsor of Aristide's 1990 bid for the presidency and a friend of the president for 12 years, he reportedly had grown frustrated with the populist president's tendency to make snap decisions, often based on the counsel of friends rather than professional advisers.

Several prominent businessmen cited this tendency in opposing his return. One industrialist said the president needed a prime minister who would "serve as a brake" on Aristide and "be willing to stand up to him." Maintaining a clear line of authority was a key condition by Michel for his acceptance, a political source said.

Following Michel's initial rejection of the post, Aristide floated the idea of naming Foreign Minister Claudette Werleigh, a close personal friend of the president who was rejected by the business elite as a radical. Diplomats said the Clinton administration also made clear to Aristide that it would disapprove of Werleigh's appointment.

"We had no input into the selection," U.S. Embassy spokesman Stan Schrager said.

During the U.N. commercial embargo of Haiti that was imposed last December, Michel gained fame among Haiti's poor by maintaining steady imports of foodstuffs - which were not subject to the cutoff - and selling them at low prices.