Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras strode confidently down the street, looking not like the dictator and impediment to democracy that Washington makes him out to be but an earnest candidate on the campaign trail.
Dressed in civilian clothes for a foray into the countryside on Monday, Cedras shook hands, smiled and danced with his wife during a stop at a cantina as the television cameras focused on him.After a career spent avoiding the limelight and exercising power from the shadows, the military strongman who toppled Haiti's elected civilian president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in a September 1991 coup has suddenly stepped out of the barracks and into the streets. During the last three weeks, Cedras has made more public appearances than in the past three years and has sought to remake his image dramatically.
To threats by the United States that it will invade Haiti if he does not step down, Cedras has responded less with arms than with a public relations campaign. His Haitian supporters and foreign diplomats agree that the target of that effort is not just the Haitian public, divided between elements both hostile and friendly, but also audiences abroad, principally in the United States.
During his trip Monday to the town of Petit-Goave, about 40 miles southwest of the capital, Cedras actually had little to say. But the sight of the normally formal and dour commander in chief of the Haitian Armed Forces walking the streets in blue jeans, smiling and greeting the populace sent a message: rather than backing down in the face of Washington's threat to invade, the leader of the Haitian military remains confident, reasonable and in complete command.
"Threats to invade, or even the passage of Resolution 940" by the United Nations on July 31, which authorizes the United States and its allies to use "all necessary means" to overthrow the Haitian military, "clearly don't mean anything to these people," one diplomat here said. "They just laugh."
That message has not been lost on Aristide's supporters, either. "Each day there is a new sign of the military's intention to stay," Mischa Gaillard, a spokesman for Konakom, an umbrella group that includes most of the main pro-Aristide political organizations, said of Cedras' recent forays and high visibility. "It is very serious what he is saying and doing."
Cedras' ostentatious show of confidence and strength has to some extent also undermined the sweeping economic sanctions imposed on Haiti by the United States and the United Nations.
The sanctions are intended to encourage the country's economic elite to move against Cedras, but the consolidation of power symbolized by his recent public appearances has weakened their political impact.
"If you Americans think that business people can force the military to leave now, you're crazy," a leading businessman said last week. "What kind of pressure can we exert? If we go to Cedras and tell him he has to leave, he will laugh at us."
Americans bail out
A Dominican immigration official said Wednesday in Santo Domingo that some 800 U.S. citizens have left Haiti through the neighboring Dominican Republic in recent weeks and that more continue to leave.
"They're still leaving," said the official, who asked not to be named.
The official said some 800 U.S. citizens have left in less than a month and that departures continued Wednesday.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. One of the main crossing points is in the Dominican city of Dajabon, 180 miles northwest of Santo Domingo.