All Eyes on Transformed Aristide

LABELS such as ``firebrand priest'' and ``anti-imperialist leftist,'' used to describe Jean-Bertrand Aristide before he was restored as Haiti's president in October, have given way to new and friendly monikers.

Now, after six weeks in office, he is widely referred to as a ``sophisticated diplomat'' and ``accomplished politician.''

Even Mr. Aristide's fiercest critics admit he has become a savvy statesman as a result of his three-year exile in the United States, during which he had to learn the art of diplomacy and politics, Washington-style.

But supporters and critics alike question if Aristide has fundamentally changed and whether, beyond his calls for reconciliation, he will be able to rule his impoverished and historically undemocratic country once US troops withdraw next year.

``When Aristide was a priest, he spoke of nonviolence, but his words were tough, harsh on some people,'' says Foreign Affairs Minister Claudette Werleigh, who has known the president for more than a decade. ``As a politician, a president, he can't do that now.

``But he has not changed in what he believes in. He has a dream for society and knows that he can't build one by himself,'' she explains. ``He has to work with other political parties, make concessions.''

Pacifying the elite

To appease Haiti's business community, the sector of the country most uneasy with Aristide's earlier populous rule and combative rhetoric, Aristide appointed a conservative businessman as prime minister. Smarck Michel in turn doled out several key Cabinet positions to members of opposition parties. Despite that, members of the wealthy elite still say they are wary of Aristide's ability to govern.

``They won't come right out and denounce him,'' one Haitian political analyst says. ``They even attend his functions in the spirit of reconciliation. But for them that means they'll refrain from financing a coup d'etat. It doesn't mean they'll invest in the future of their country.''

When Aristide arrived in Washington after spending the first several months of his 1991 exile in Venezuela, he met with the Washington Post, who portrayed him as naive and ill-suited for the presidency. He refused to use a translator. And he responded in limited English to questions about resolving the coup with answers of love and peace, not political strategy, thus starting off his relationship with Washington on bad footing.

His English today is much improved. But even as late as a year ago, when a leaked Central Intelligence Agency report questioning Aristide's sanity set off a storm of controversy, the Haitian president's capabilities were still in question. It was later discovered that the report was largely sourced by Haiti's military leaders who are now in exile.

And although Aristide's priest-like speeches still include phrases of love, they are also now sprinkled with statistics and economic programs.

``What has he learned? I think he's a master at how to deal with Washington,'' says Lawrence Pezzullo, who often butted heads with Aristide during 1992-1993, while he was President Clinton's special adviser to Haiti. ``But I'm not sure he knows how to govern that country. A democratic system is one of constant compromising and working out various and sundry details. Aristide has never shown a willingness to do that.''

Those who have worked closely with Aristide over the years, however, say it is precisely this ability to listen and analyze that he was successful in his fight for restoration. They point to his education in theology and psychology as the origin of those talents.

``He picks his battles wisely,'' says one person who has worked with him both in Washington and Haiti.

And in the last two months, Aristide has repeatedly shown his willingness to compromise. Just last week it was made public that he had bowed to the Vatican's four-year pressure to resign from the priesthood. He was dismissed from the Salesian Order in December 1988, after the Vatican accused him of using the pulpit to preach politically motivated sermons that incited violence. Fellow priests described Aristide's move as ``done in the spirit of reconciliation, in good faith to help the country and the church.''

But Renaud Berdardin, former planning minister and now a member of the president's private Cabinet emphasizes that Aristide has not become a pawn of the international community.

``People who think they can influence Aristide are under an illusion,'' Mr. Berdardin says. ``If he let people influence him, wouldn't he have made all the concessions asked of him and returned earlier? He didn't do that because he's not crazy for power.

``He'll listen to you if he thinks you have something to say. But he knows what he wants and how to get it done.''

Some supporters have criticized Aristide, saying he is making too many concessions and that they feel under represented. The president's response has been to call for ``dialogue, in the name of democracy.''

True test

Aristide's real test, all agree, will come with the imminent departure of United States troops, who by the end of the year are expected to number only 6,000, down from 20,000 at the height of the intervention in September.

``The core of a rational solution is for Haitians to take responsibility for their own affairs,'' Mr. Pezzullo says.

``US presence here masks that. If you have the American troops leaving within a month, what in God's name do you leave behind, and what kind of hope do you have for a viable solution?'' he asks.

The very fact that Aristide has been reinstalled as president, some say, is enough to get the country going in the right direction.

The pressure from the international community may limit Aristide's movements, they say, but the energy he has unleashed by returning will not easily be rebottled.

``Aristide is absolutely in a prison,'' a member of the religious community here says. ``But he accepted to come back as a prisoner because he believes in the Haitian people and his presence gives them the courage to do what they need to do: to be heard, to organize themselves, to reclaim their own voice.''

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