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Aristide is set to return to a jubilant population in a deeply polarized country

PREPARATIONS for the long-awaited return of Haiti's exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide are in their final hour. Sunrise street sweepers are clearing the last of sprawling garbage mounds, while engineers work around the clock to install security systems at the National Palace and the president's private residence.

Tomorrow's homecoming is an unprecendented victory for Haiti and the international community, which has pursued this end off and on since President Aristide was exiled on Sept. 30, 1991.

But a sobering reality awaits Aristide when he sets foot on Haitian soil.

He will be returning to a deeply polarized country that has been devastated by military rule and tough economic sanctions. The coup ending the few months of democratic rule and the subsequent embargo curtailed and even turned back economic, political, and environmental development efforts here. And an estimated 4,000 Haitians have died since 1991 as a result of human rights violations.

``Much of President Aristide's success will depend on whether those sectors who backed the coup, financed it - the military, paramilitary, and their supporters - are prepared to accept democracy,'' says Mike Levy, a consultant in Aristide's liaison office in Washington who is here with an advance team. ``Aristide has extended the invitation to them all to work together - if they can accept basic democratic principles.''

Members of the business community, once outspoken critics of the president, now speak of him more moderately, but with caution. They have heard his speeches of reconciliation and nonviolence, but are waiting now to see action.

``If he wants to develop Haiti, give Haiti's poor the right to live better instead of trying to pull the rich down to the level of the poor, great,'' says Max Villard, vice president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce. ``But we don't know what he has in mind for us. He hasn't consulted with us for any of his programs.''

Aristide entered the presidential race just weeks before the October 1990 deadline with a platform dedicated to Haiti's poor majority rather than the system protecting the 1 percent elite.

Aristide developed a following among the people when he was a Salesian priest known for radical anti-imperialist speeches against the United States as a backer of Haiti's rulers. The people continued to listen even after he was expelled from his order of the Roman Catholic Church for his politics. Haitians on Dec. 16, 1990 gave Aristide 67 percent of the vote.

Well-educated and multilingual, Aristide had no political experience when elected and was considered by many to be a naive politician. He hoped to reform a military that lived by violence and whim rather than law, and a business elite that benefited from favors and exploitation.

While president, he was accused of statements indirectly supporting mob violence against those previously in power who abused the population, such as Tonton Macoutes. He was ousted by the military less than eight months after he took office. He has been living in Washington since early 1992.

``Aristide has had plenty of time to reflect on his actions,'' a Haitian analyst says. ``He better understands now what being a chief of state is, after having had a chance to meet with so many, to exchange ideas with lawyers, political leaders, members of the solidarity movement.

``He understands, now, that those he might have previously viewed as his enemies are people he now has to coexist with,'' he adds. ``You have to find a way to work with everyone, whether you agree with them or not.''

But upon his return, Aristide will confront problems even from those within his own political arena. Parliamentarians, politicians, and union organizers heatedly debate the presence of foreign troops, without whose assistance Aristide would never have been able to return.

Some feel that any real chance Aristide may have had to govern disappeared with the troop deployment. Others recognize that the crisis here had evolved to such an extreme that a national solution was impossible.

The US forces, who entered Haiti peacefully on Sept. 19, are already involved in managing the country's affairs. According to a member of Aristide's government, the multinational forces donated thousands of gallons of gasoline to the Electric Company of Haiti, but did not consult Aristide's government beforehand. Nor has the US consulted with it about planned road repairs.

Meanwhile, Cabinet members were only able to enter their offices Wednesday, after the de facto government resigned and foreign troops gave protection.

``We have to make proposals and act,'' says a consultant to the Aristide government. ``Even though everything is not in place, it's preferable for Aristide to return in the shortest time possible rather than delay his return, which would leave a power void. We want to be principal players in the restoration of democracy but not pawns of the US.''

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