BOSTON — For former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted by a military junta in 1991 and returned to power by American force of arms in 1994, Sept. 30 was an anniversary of sorts.
"Today is the anniversary of the coup. I was supposed to be dead," he says, grinning. "It happens that I am alive."
Speaking at a breakfast meeting in Boston, Mr. Aristide described Haiti's post-putsch progress as a sequence of small steps that are slowly bringing the country - generally considered to be the poorest in the Western Hemisphere - "from misery toward poverty with dignity.... It takes very little to satisfy the Haitian people once they know you respect them," he said.
Ren Prval, his hand-picked successor, was elected to the presidency in constitutionally mandated elections last December - an election in which Aristide was legally forbidden to run again. Since he ceded power in February, Aristide has been involved in two foundations that work on development projects such as literacy improvement (85 percent of Haiti is illiterate) and economic empowerment.
The former priest says one of his foundations tries to help Haiti's poor children in "small ways." Children who once walked two hours to school every morning are now ferried there in buses bought by the foundation.
"It was too painful to leave it this way," he said. "So we bought vehicles to bus kids in to school. It's not much, but it is something. We don't want to build democracy with only words."
The new Haitian government, however, has had a hard time leaving behind the legacy of violence. Aristide's arrival in the United States coincided with an imbroglio that has Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee accusing the Clinton administration of withholding documents detailing two recent assassinations carried out by members of President Prval's Palace Guard.
A commission set up by Aristide soon after he was reinstalled in 1994 to document the worst military abuses produced a 1,200 page report, which he says has yet to be released despite the fact Prval has the power to do so.
In addition, the small national police force of 5,000 men harbors many former soldiers who were part of the hated military police and who have been only perfunctorily screened.
As Aristide smiled for the cameras and politely answered questions about education and development, reports of a foiled scheme to assassinate some of Haiti's highest officials and foment disorder in the slums of Port-au-Prince, the capital, unfolded in Haiti. Local media said the alleged plotters were former soldiers in the brutal army that overthrew Aristide in 1991.