Resurgent popular discontent with Haiti's President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier has provoked new street violence and a stiff government crackdown in recent weeks, leading to threats of a cutback in U.S. aid because of human rights abuses.
Foreign Minister Jean-Robert Estime flew to Washington and met Tuesday with Elliott Abrams, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, in an effort to persuade the Reagan administration to maintain its request to Congress for $56 million in U.S. aid for fiscal 1986. Guy Meyer, the Haitian government spokesman, said Estime made the trip because the U.S. Embassy here informed Duvalier's government that the administration will have trouble making a human rights certification required by Congress a condition for continuing the aid at full level.
U.S. concern arose particularly from the Thanksgiving Day shootings of three teen-agers by Haitian Army troops dispatched to the town of Gonaives to put down street protests against economic misery and Duvalier's authoritarian rule. Diplomatic sources here said a fourth youth died later from beatings by the troops, and a Protestant educator arrested separately also died this week in police custody.
In addition, Duvalier's government arrested a prominent opposition politician and former Cabinet minister, Hubert de Ronceray, on Dec. 4 on charges of keeping subversive material in his home and office. According to his wife Marie-Michelle, de Ronceray has been held in a cell with five other political prisoners without being brought before a judge as required by Haitian law and as the government has pledged to do.
The Reagan administration also has expressed concern over the Dec. 5 closing of Radio Soleil, a Roman Catholic Church station known for broadcasting reports of antigovernment agitation in the Creole language commonly spoken by Haiti's 6 million inhabitants. Last Sunday, as Estime left for Washington, police beat a dozen youths who were arrested here for protesting the Radio Soleil suspension as they left a church-sponsored concert, according to a diplomat who saw some of the victims.
"The events in the last month certainly call into question our ability to certify on human rights and free press," a U.S. diplomat said.
The Haitian Bishops Conference opened a meeting this week to determine how to deal with the government over Radio Soleil.
"We are not going to reopen without guarantees," said the Rev. Emmanuel Constant, bishop of Gonaives.
The Protestant-run Radio Lumiere, which also has come under government pressure, dropped news from its program in order to stay on the air.
The Catholic Church increasingly has assumed an opposition role in Haiti, apparently ending decades of trying to get along with the Duvalier family dictatorship founded in 1957 by the late Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, the current president's father. Three Belgian priests were expelled last summer after denouncing as fraudulent a July 22 referendum that endorsed the younger Duvalier's lifetime mandate by 99.98 percent according to government count. One of the three expelled Begians ran Radio Soleil.
Concern over the current unrest appears sharply higher than in the past among government officials and foreign observers. The disorders have been more widespread, prolonged and clearly political than previous outbursts such as hunger protests in spring 1984. Since the Gonaives violence Nov. 27 and 28, street trouble also has occurred in Jeremy, Petit Gouave, Port-au-Prince and several other towns, according to official and diplomatic reports.
In addition, students demonstrating in Gonaives shouted, among other slogans, "Long Live the Army." This was interpreted as an appeal for military action against Duvalier.
Although the idea has precedents in Haitian history, it was a new suggestion for the current political opposition. A number of diplomats said, however, that some soldiers may have been involved in what the government described as an exile-led plot against Duvalier two months ago.
Gregoire Eugene, a government opponent who heads the nascent Social Christian Party, said the 7,000-man Army represents the only force that can bring a solution to Haiti. He said officers could push Duvalier from power and set up a transition government to organize free elections. "That is not the best solution, but it is the only solution," he said.
His comment, although aimed toward his own political objectives, reflected a widespread assessment that opposition to Duvalier has increased, particularly among youths in contact with antigovernment priests.
"Many political analysts here have a feeling that this is the beginning of the end," said a Latin American diplomat.
More immediately, failure to certify progress in human rights would mean suspension of at least $7 million in U.S. aid to the poorest country in the hemisphere, a Washington-based U.S. official estimated. Much of the $56 million in proposed 1986 aid passes through private voluntary organizations or goes toward purchase of commodities such as wheat. It is possible that neither type of aid would be affected by a denial of certification, the official said.
The longer term impact could be great, however, because Haiti depends on foreign aid for more than a third of its $480 million budget. Other donors, such as France and Canada, also have made human rights a factor in aid allocations.
Partly as a result of this dependence, Duvalier's government has tried to improve the benighted image left behind on his father's death in 1971. The younger Duvalier, jettisoning the most overtly repressive aspects of his father's rule, has opened the way for limited political comment in the press, proclaimed a political parties law and promised elections in 1987.
Since 1982, when Congress imposed the requirement, the State Department regularly has certified that Haiti is making progress in human rights and democratization, citing these steps.
As part of the effort to retain certification, Jean-Marie Chanoine, who heads two key ministries, announced this week that the shootings in Gonaives were a mistake and that those responsible are being held for trial.
Chanoine declined a reporter's request to discuss this and other matters. But the recent troubles have been broadly interpreted by Haitians and diplomats here as a sign that Duvalier's display of flexibility has narrow limits.
The State Department said in an update to Congress in October, for example, that the July referendum "revealed a broad lack of appreciation of democratic principles within the government and was judged by international observers to be a setback for the president's political opening."