The one-day visit, the first by a cabinet-level official since the administration of President George W. Bush began sending a contingent of 2,000 Marines as part of a U.S.-led multinational force (MIFH) that also includes some 1,600 troops from France, Canada and Chile, is billed as a morale-booster for the soldiers and an effort to highlight progress in stabilizing the Caribbean country.
The latter purpose may be a bit difficult to achieve, according to long-time Haiti observers here who note that, while superficially quiet, the country has virtually no functioning government, and much of its territory outside the capital is now ruled by armed rebels and gang leaders.
''Everything has collapsed,'' according to Jocelyn McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York. ''There is no functioning state, and even the (anti-Aristide political) opposition is very concerned that the order that existed before Aristide was first elected in 1990 is being reinstated.''
Haiti was ruled by dictators Francois (''Papa Doc'') Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (''Baby Doc'') from 1956 to 1986 and by short-lived, unstable governments until 1990.
While that might be a long-term concern, U.S. officials have themselves not been particularly happy with the performance of the transitional government that it helped install after Aristide's exile aboard a specially chartered U.S. jet Feb. 29.
They have also been displeased by the refusal of Haiti's Caribbean neighbors--who Washington had hoped would also contribute peacekeepers--to recognize the new government, although officially the State Department insists it is not too concerned.
''There's a lot of progress that is being made in Haiti by the new government there with the support of the international community, and we would hope that the CARICOM nations could be part of that,'' said spokesman Richard Boucher earlier this week.
Led by Jamaica the members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which, at Washington's behest had been trying for months to mediate a settlement to a long-running feud between Aristide and his political opposition, have expressed frustration that Washington never consulted with them in advance about removing Aristide.
They have asked that the United Nations General Assembly formally investigate the circumstances of his flight from Haiti, which Aristide--who was taken to the Central African Republic (CAR)--has claimed was actually a kidnapping, a charge strenuously denied by the Bush administration.
Earlier this week, lawyers for Aristide who, with the help of members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) made his way from CAR to Kingston two weeks ago, filed a lawsuit against a number of French and U.S. officials in Paris who he says played key roles in arranging his ouster and exile. They say they will launch a similar suit in U.S. courts in coming weeks.
That Jamaica agreed to host the ousted leader for a period of up to 10 weeks has also angered Washington, despite the fact that Prime Minister PJ Patterson instructed Aristide--who maintains his resignation was coerced and hence invalid--not to comment on Haitian politics during his stay on the island.
U.S. officials and their counterparts in the interim government have expressed concern that Aristide's proximity might foster continued instability in Haiti or even defiance of the interim government. By all accounts, the exiled president remains by far the most popular figure in Haiti, particularly among the poor who form the overwhelming majority of the country's eight million people.
U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether to indict Aristide for allegedly receiving millions of dollars from drug traffickers during his tenure, as publicly charged by one convicted major trafficker and one of his top security officials who was recently extradited from Canada, according to an account in Friday's 'Wall Street Journal'.
Such charges, strongly denied by Aristide, have long shadowed the former Catholic priest, but no concrete evidence of his personal involvement has ever come to light.
Haiti's interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who was selected by a U.S.-backed council of ''eminent persons, has shown virtually no political sense. A businessman and former U.N. official who served briefly as Haiti's foreign minister in one of the military-dominated governments that preceded Aristide's first election in 1990, Latortue has spent most of his adult life in the United States and other western nations.
He initially promised to appoint a government that would represent all political sectors but ended up filling his cabinet with technocrats, some with international connections like himself, on the assumption they can facilitate the flow of donor aid that was largely denied Aristide.
Most worrisome to human-rights groups here was Latortue's appointment to head the Interior Ministry of retired Lt Gen Herard Abraham, the former chief of staff of the army that was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 but is still permitted under the Haitian constitution.
Abraham has said he favors reconstituting the army, and his appointment of some of his former colleagues as advisers is fueling concerns that a de facto restoration of the old order might indeed be underway.
Not only have Latortue's choices managed to worry major figures in both the political opposition and among Aristide's supporters, but the interim leader has shown himself to be lacking a certain diplomatic finesse, as well.
Thus, his decision to essentially cut off relations with Jamaica and withdraw the Haitian ambassador after Patterson announced that Aristide would be permitted to visit there was seen as a serious blunder that served only to stoke CARICOM's anger over the way Aristide was ousted.
Worse, however, was Latortue's trip to Gonaives two weeks ago, when he publicly embraced Guy Philippe, the military chief of the rebels whose armed takeover of much of northern and central Haiti in January precipitated the crisis that led to Aristide's exile.
Latortue publicly praised the rebels--who are led mostly by former officers, like Philippe, of the disbanded Haitian army and its paramilitary death squads--as ''freedom fighters,'' a move that provoked red faces at the State Department and outraged editorials by, among other major U.S. newspapers, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.
''He alienated many supporters in Haiti and abroad, because of that embrace'', said McCalla. ''It was not a politic thing to do''.
The visit also underlined that the state is not in control, even of a major city like Gonaives. Although some MIFH troops patrol there and in some other northern towns and cities during the day, ''it's the rebels who provide security at night'', according to McCalla, who added, ''there's an unholy arrangement between the peacekeepers and the rebels''.
U.S. military chiefs, who lead the MIFH, have also reportedly reversed earlier plans to actively disarm the rebels and other armed gangs.
''There's a real vacuum in the countryside, and it's being filled by those with the guns'', said Robert Maguire, a Haiti specialist at Trinity College here. He suggested similarities to Afghanistan, where peacekeepers maintain order in the capital but leave the rest of the country to warlords.
Many local officials associated with Aristide's party, he said, have fled to Port-au-Prince, and there have also been reports of summary executions against suspected Aristide supporters. ''There are even credible reports of old section chiefs from the Duvalier period returning," he added.
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