WASHINGTON — EXILED Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide holds a very practical - if stark - brand of hope for his troubled nation.
"We want to pass from unacceptable misery to poverty with dignity," he says.
Does he mean that everyone should have a certain level of income or at least one square meal a day?
"No," he says, impatient. "I'm not talking about meat. I'm talking about weapons [being used against us].... Here [in the United States] people might not understand how bad the country is where you are facing people with weapons and [not feeling] free to go somewhere without thinking of someone who can shoot you at any time for nothing."
President Aristide's hope for Haitian peace of mind, expressed in an interview this week in his modestly furnished and heavily guarded Georgetown apartment, might seem quite reasonable and proportionate given the scope of poverty his nation must overcome. But his lengthy exile here in Washington - more than double the eight months he was in office - is a cruel hint that his hopes could be as pie-in-the-sky as putting a car in every Haitian garage.
On Sept. 30, 1991, the Haitian military, backed by sectors of the wealthy business class, overthrew Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest turned politician who was Haiti's first democratically elected leader. After the coup, the US and other members of the Organization of American States (OAS) immediately demanded his reinstatement through diplomatic efforts and a trade embargo.
Aristide is alternately supportive and critical of his international protectors. The international presence in Haiti during its first democratic elections in 1990 is what made those elections succeed, he says. And that kind of continued support is what it will take to keep Haiti on the democratic track, he adds. Cools economic rhetoric
After years of sermonizing against the "deadly economic infection called capitalism," he strongly embraces a market economy for Haiti to break the "monopoly that 1 percent of the population [has] on 45 percent of the national budget."
While supporting the US policy (initiated by President Bush and continued by President Clinton) of forcible return of Haitian boat people, he says that the OAS embargo is not hitting the Haitian elite because it is not being enforced strongly enough.
Aristide is a small man whose soft speech in a face-to-face encounter suggests little of his fiery sermons in witty Haitian Creole that captured the hearts of the impoverished and illiterate masses, while striking fear in many moneyed Haitians who felt he condoned a violent redistribution of wealth.
Aristide is a well-educated and widely traveled man, but he has not traded the salt-of-the-earth parables he used in years of work with the Haitian poor for diplomatic-speak. Indeed, he frequently lapses into using "we" for he and the Haitian poor.
Standing firmly for his principles, he sometimes seems to be cutting his own throat - infuriating diplomats who have been trying to cut a deal for him to return to power and continuing to anger the Haitian power elite, who saw his campaign promise of a more equitable society as a threat.
One bone of contention all around is the question of amnesty for the military leaders who carried out the coup.
Officials at the US State Department - who find themselves in the ironic position of trying to help a man who sermonized against the US as "satan," and a "shadowy evildoer," - have been infuriated by what they say is Aristide's duplicitous dealing on the issue of amnesty.
Virtually all experts on the situation agree that the powers that be in Haiti are not going to permit Aristide's return if it means they will be prosecuted.
Diplomats who were party to last year's efforts to have Aristide sit face to face with military and political leaders in Haiti insist that in private discussions, the exiled president had agreed to a complete amnesty. But those diplomatic efforts failed after Aristide publicly denied that he would offer amnesty.
"I never said that," he says. Nor will he ever agree to an amnesty for the military leaders who overthrew him, he asserts, because coups are outlawed in the Haitian Constitution and an amnesty would violate the Constitution. No amnesty for `thugs'
"You cannot ask [Haitians] to wait for justice without removing the symbol of the coup, the Army thugs who made the coup," he explains. "It would offend the people."
To "balance" matters, he says, "I say let's remove [Army chief Raoul] Cedras and some other thugs from the Army.... And at the same time, because we condemn any kind of violence, let's ask the Haitian people not to [resort to] any kind of violence."
While he condemns violence and claims his hands and his followers' hands are "clean," there is wide dispute, even among some of his own followers, as to whether Aristide hasn't implicitly promoted mob justice in the past. The US State Department in its human rights report last month repeated the report of two penitentiary officers that Aristide himself ordered the execution of an official in the regime of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
For his part, Aristide claims that his words have been mistranslated from Haitian Creole.
Does it concern him that the embargo on his behalf has hurt the Haitian poor more than it has the elites in power?
The average Haitian understands that the economic suffering caused by the embargo also will have a political effect on those who seized power, Aristide says. But the prolonged suffering of Haitians under the embargo, he adds, is "the responsibility of those who were supposed to make the embargo work."
Asked if he is implying that it is the fault of Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush, the US State Department, or the OAS, Aristide lapses into a sage-like demeanor and says repeatedly, "I'm talking about those who were involved in making the embargo work."
"Those people didn't show the political will to make the embargo stop the ships bringing oil to Haiti when they could stop the boat people," he says, contrasting the leaky embargo with the tight US Coast Guard blockade the US has thrown up to prevent an exodus of Haitians.