Aristide in Haiti: Back to the future?

On Feb. 7 Jean-Bertrand Aristide will be inaugurated as president of Haiti for the second time.

The first swearing-in was in 1990, after the first free election ever in Latin America's oldest independent state. He lasted seven months. Overthrown by a military coup, he made it to safety in the United States, embraced as a victimized democrat. It was a role he played well for three years, a frail, winsome priest preaching thorough-going reform for his country and a better life for its people living in poverty, extreme even by third-world standards.

Mr. Aristide has remained the most popular figure in Haiti. But if he had to leave again, he would not be welcome here and in other countries that have tried to build Haitian democracy. More than 20,000 US soldiers plus a contingent of UN peacekeepers and civil-affairs experts brought Aristide back to Port-au-Prince in September 1994 and returned him to office. His promises were the same, but his 14 months in office saw no slacking in the anarchic violence, corruption, and incompetence he had inherited.

His refusal to consider basic common-sense reforms, like privatization of state monopolies that have long been cash cows for the rulers, led to Western nations' freezing some $600 million in aid funds. Millions in cash vanished. Poverty grew even worse for the people, while the grands mangeurs - the "big eaters," in their fortified villas - mysteriously lived the good life. The cocaine barons of Colombia turned this vacuum into a hub that ships to the US an estimated 14 percent of its habit.

Aristide's top priority was to remain in office when his term expired. That being blocked by the Constitution, he aimed for the next five-year term, which he now begins. Meanwhile, an old crony has kept the presidential chair warm, mainly ruling by decree. The last prime minister resigned four years ago. Parliament has been stymied by a movement, Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) which is Aristide's personal political force. His supporters are notorious for beating up the opposition and stealing elections. There have been some infamous political murders.

The populist now-ex-priest has married and lives in a luxurious villa. He knows the score. He will not trust Haitian police to protect him, but hires guards from an American security company.

As for the long-promised reforms, Aristide renewed his commitment to them in a cheery message to President Clinton in December, conveying no more credibility than his earlier assurances. It would be interesting to see his reply to President Bush - if Mr. Bush ever asks.

Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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