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IS U.S. INVASION OF HAITI NOW A MATTER OF `IF’?

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The red-and-blue banners that stretch across main streets in Port-au-Prince read: "No to the U.S. invasion." But the colors are beginning to fade after being up for more than a month, because the likelihood of such an invasion to reinstate the deposed president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, seems to have grown dimmer for many Haitians.

The State Department's attention in the region seems to be focused on Cuba, and what Haitians once called invasion fever seems to have broken.Though U.S. ships still sit off Haiti as part of a U.N. embargo that continues to squeeze the Haitian economy, Haitians who once said "when" in relation to the invasion are now saying "if."

Stanley Schrager, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here, said that Washington's resolve on Haiti had not weakened and that there was still only one acceptable resolution to the political stalemate: for the military-backed leadership to step down, making way for Aristide to return to power.

But to his supporters, what seems to be Washington's preoccupation with Cuba is bad news, and gives the Haitian military exactly what it wants: more time.

After nearly three years of oppression and broken promises by the Haitian authorities, the Clinton administration's talk of an invasion gave some Aristide supporters hope that the exit of the military leaders would be hastened. Now that feeling of optimism fades with every headline about Cubans fleeing their country, said one supporter of Aristide.

"It is like the U.S. can only solve one problem at a time," a young woman said.

She said that she was willing to suffer under the embargo, to eat less, walk everywhere she goes, even risk the killings of the poor people that continue to leave back roads dotted with corpses, as long as there was some end in sight. But Washington, she asserted, is behaving like a bully, taunting one child, threatening to fight, but running away just to taunt another child.

"I feel sorry for the Cubans who are suffering," she said, "but I don't believe they are suffering as much as we are."

The Haitian military continues to conduct drills with a civilian militia and to talk of repelling an invasion by the United States. Last week, it paraded a new unit, armed only with machetes, past the presidential palace. But Washington's confrontation with Cuba could not have come at a better time for those in power, some Haitians said. Foreign journalists have left the country by the dozens in the last few weeks, many seeking visas to Cuba.

The hardships of the embargo do not reach into the military barracks or the headquarters where Lt. Gen. Raul Cedras and his subordinates seem prepared to wait it out indefinitely.

"If you do see someone wading ashore, it won't be the Marines," one man said. It would be some lost Cuban, he added.