Aristide's Task: To Smooth Ups and Downs of Haiti

From the poor at the port to the rich in the hills, Haitians look to their restored leader for progress

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HAITI is a country of up and down. Mountains define this small island nation - geographically, sociologically, politically, and economically. The equation is simple: Some people are up, most are down.

This is true everywhere in Haiti, but it is played out most dramatically here in the nation's capital. The poor live near the port, where the houses and the air are close and hot. The rich live up the hill in a suburb called Petionville, where trees provide shade from the hot sun.

So when Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide urges reconciliation, as he did this week in his dramatic return after three years of exile, he is trying to bridge the country's largest social divide. It is not the coming together of the political right and left, but the more slippery slope where the rich reach down and the poor reach up. Roughly 1 percent of Haiti's elite control more than 44 percent of the country's wealth.

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Near the port of Port-au-Prince, Wilfred Athenis stands in the city dump. Behind him, kneeling children and bent-over adults pick through a sea of paper, cardboard, and plastic, looking for the remains of United States military meals. The lucky ones will find a plastic pouch of half-eaten beef stew or chicken a la king. Yet Mr. Athenis remains optimistic.

``It's a big celebration for us,'' he says. ``The country was in a terrible state without President Aristide. Already, since the Americans [came] the country has changed ... for the better.''

Athenis, a former corporal in the Haitian Army, has not worked in three years. He lost his position after his contract ran out.

Yolande Polydor, who lives a few blocks from the water, hasn't had work in the last three years either. ``I would like to work as a secretary,'' she says. But a year after completing 10 years of studies, she has found no work. ``I want a change for all the sectors of society,'' she says.

On Oct. 17, Marie Lanouse D'Haiti and Jacques Corvington Blaise craned their necks for a glimpse of their president, who, speaking at a commemorative ceremony, called for reconciliation as he has repeatedly since September.

What does Aristide's Oct. 15 return to power mean? ``It's a change,'' says Mr. Blaise, who before the coup worked as a bank clerk in Port-au-Prince, but has not worked since.

Is reconciliation really possible?

``If they want reconciliation, we want it too,'' Ms. D'Haiti says of the wealthy.

Louis Mario Barbier, an unemployed cartoonist, is helping repaint the flags of the world on the wall commonly called ``The Place of Nations.''

He too has thought about reconciliation. ``It's very difficult, but it's the only road,'' he says. ``To be a nation, we have to live in peace.... We're all Haitians.''

Gilles Danroc, a Roman Catholic priest and coordinator of the church's human-rights organization in Haiti, has his own definition. ``I think that reconciliation means: Come work. If you respect the Constitution, fine. If you don't, you're out of the game. It depends on future actions, not the past.''

bout halfway up Delmas Avenue, one of three principal roads linking Port-au-Prince to the suburb of Petionville, the owner of a hardware store is finishing lunch.

``I'm optimistic by nature,'' says the owner, who declines to give his name. ``If [government officials] make something constructive, it's hopeful.''

In Petionville itself, hotel owner Yolande Kirk is skeptical. She vividly remembers the burning and looting that took place during the seven months of Aristide's administration, cut short by the 1991 coup.

``They say we have the very rich and the very poor'' in Haiti, she says. But ``by the standards of [the United States], they are not that rich.... My daughter in Miami called today and said that they were holding a fund-raiser for President Clinton's brother-in-law. It cost $10,000 a plate - $10,000 a plate! Is that right?''

In recent weeks, Mrs. Kirk has talked about leaving Haiti if mob violence erupts from members of the pro-Aristide movement, known as Lavalas, meaning ``flood'' in Creole.

``If this turns out to be bad, all these people [in Petionville] will have to leave this country and go somewhere else,'' she says. ``If [Aristide] is going to stir things up and talk about `rich and poor, rich and poor,' nothing will change. For the masses, Lavalas means burning, looting.''

Louis DeJoie, Haiti's interim commerce minister, is also cautious. ``If you inflame the crowd that has nothing, and you tell them: `Up the hill, there are three shoes, and you have no shoes, you can imagine the ones with no shoes going up the hill and getting at least two pairs.''

But, he adds, ``we like the way President Aristide has been talking in the last three or four months.''

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