With Aristide Back in Office, Haiti's Equation Changes for All

Haitian right and left, elite and poor face a new political game

WHEN Jean-Bertrand Aristide stepped onto the airport tarmac in Port-au-Prince, Haiti rejoiced. But it also changed.

The return of the exiled president on Saturday has transformed the country's politics. The right, the left, even the United States will have to adjust to the new circumstances.

So far, President Aristide has set a cordial tone - one very much to the liking of the US. In his speech from the National Palace Saturday, he called again and again for reconciliation and an end to violence. ``Never, never, never again let one drop of blood flow,'' he told a crowd estimated at tens of thousands.

Aristide's nonviolent return and conciliatory speech allowed the US policymakers to bask in the glow of the US operation in Haiti. Along with staring down Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Haiti has so far proved to be a foreign-policy success for the Clinton administration.

But with the return of Aristide, everything changes, including the role of the US military. Where before it was liberator, it is now occupier. US troops may still be able to draw on the extraordinary reserve of goodwill that they have built up with the Haitian people. If the situation remains calm, they may remain in Haitian eyes as a relatively benign police force.

But if the streets get violent, the operation US soldiers jokingly refer to as their ``Haitian vacation'' could turn ugly.

Already, some Haitians are cautious. ``We welcome the occupiers, but we're keeping an eye on them,'' said Romel Jean Pierre, a doctor in the northern Haitian town of Limonade last week.

Others are more skeptical. ``It's an American coup d'etat and it will be resolved in an American way,'' grouses Francklin Mllus, a grass-roots organizer in Cap-Haitien.

According to US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the troops will stay here ``a matter of months,'' certainly through parliamentary elections scheduled for December or January. When Haiti is safe and secure, then the US military will withdraw, he adds.

Haiti's political right faces perhaps the starkest choices in its adaptation strategy. The professional and business class, which largely makes up the conservative element, will be watching closely to see how Aristide handles economic and other matters. ``We are waiting for the choice of ministers,'' says a Port-au-Prince attorney who declined to give his name. ``If he surrounds himself with credible people, then we will be able to put confidence in him.''

Traditionally, this business and professional class has aligned itself with the elite - the 20 or so families who make up less than one percent of the population but control more than 44 percent of Haiti's wealth. This elite faces an even starker choice: join Aristide and lose a part of their political power or resist the president.

``It's over for them,'' says Gilles Danroc, Haitian coordinator of Justice and Peace, a human-rights arm of the Catholic church. ``If there are oligarchs and monopolists, they [Haitians] will never find peace.''

The political left will also have to adapt to the new situation. Grass-roots organizations in Haiti have been so persecuted during the last three years that they are disorganized, marginalized, and possess little long-term strategy.

Will they continue supporting Aristide? There will be ``a certain opposition but not an obstacle to the government,'' says one Port-au-Prince activist. Mr. Danroc and other grass-root activists point out that the silver lining from the coup three years ago is the political maturation of Haitians. For example, while expectations are high for what Aristide can do for them, unemployed Haitians have a common-sense view of their economic future. They speak of finding employment in months rather than weeks.

The big question mark hangs over Aristide himself. Has the man who will change Haiti matured during his three years in exile? Many observers believe he has. ``I've never been a big Aristide fan, as you know,'' says one longtime White House aide who traveled with Aristide to Haiti. ``But I'm a convert.''

Others have not been as easily convinced.

``There's something rather peculiar about Aristide that I can't put my finger on,'' says Georges Fauriol, director of the Americas program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. ``When you listen to him [talk], you're not quite sure he's registered what you told him.... It sounds either incredibly visionary or downright hokey.''

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