THE Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from his pulpit, used to rail against the sins of foreign bankers, businessmen and the United States government. But since becoming president of Haiti seven months ago, he has swapped fiery rhetoric for reconciliation.These days, the 38-year-old Roman Catholic priest speaks of a new harmony with his old adversaries. President Aristide has broken bread with the US Embassy and international lenders in his crusade to lead Haiti out of its extreme poverty, observers say. "There were worries that Aristide would set up an authoritarian socialist state and be virtually anti-American, but that hasn't happened," says a European diplomat. "He has concluded he needs practical answers." Known as "Titid," or "Little Aristide," the slightly-built pastor won 67 percent of the vote in last December's election. He was inaugurated Feb. 7 to head the poorest country in the hemisphere: a nation of slums, eroded farmlands, 85 percent illiteracy, and 40 percent unemployment. After 34 years of the Duvalier family dictatorship and corrupt military regimes, Aristide has begun to instill a sense of honesty in government and has pledged to put social issues at the top of the agenda. He has donated his $10,000 annual salary to charity, ordered price cuts on foods like rice and flour, and plans to raise the minimum wage from $2 to $3.50 a day. But with little cash for immediate social spending, his administration has concentrated on orthodox structural reforms with an eye on long-term economic health. Tax and import tariff collection has risen, government ministries have been streamlined, and 5,000 state jobs have been cut. Such moves have reduced the budget deficit from $8 million to $2.2 million, says Economy Minister Marie Michele Rey.
Change of direction "This is not a welfare government. We have to lay out the ground rules and create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable to work," Ms. Rey says "We are not spending money we don't have." Indeed, some of Aristide's old colleagues say the president has backed away from his progressive dogma. Jobs programs are not even talked about; a loudly trumpeted campaign to teach 3 million Haitians to read by 1995 is barely functioning due to a lack of state funding. And in a sharp change of course, the government has begun to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for fresh loans. Aristide used to claim that such assistance was pocketed by corrupt leaders and only put Haiti deeper in debt. But attempts to remain more independent by passing the hat in the business community as well as among Haitians living abroad netted only a few million dollars. Last month the government turned to the international community for help. After meeting with perspective lenders at a World Bank-sponsored forum in Paris, the government is on the verge of adopting austerity measures recommended by the IMF. The move is likely to mean more sacrifices from the population but Rey says it will open the way for $442 million in grants and loans. In an interview, Aristide said an honest government can make such aid pay off and says he wants to build a better relationship with foreign lenders. "Haiti must look at its needs so that [international] cooperation comes as a response to our path," Aristide says. "The capacity to understand what we are doing, as well as the attempts of an honest government, will help the relationship." Another foe-turned-friend for Aristide is the US government. Despite his distrust of Washington - which for decades backed Haiti's former dictators - Aristide has built bridges with the Bush administration and "tried to present the US in a positive way to the Haitian people," says US Ambassador Alvin Adams. Haiti is expected to get $82 million in US aid this year. Still, economic deliverance requires the support of Haiti's jittery commercial sector. Businessmen remain suspicious of Aristide and have held off on investments because the government lacks a coherent economic plan, says Marc Bazin, an economist who lost to Aristide in the December election. The economy, dominated by coffee exports and light assembly, remains in a recession and Aristide warns of a backlash if businesses fail to provide jobs. "If there are no jobs, the people are not simply going to blame the government," Aristide says. "They are also going to blame those who, in the past, have unjustly enriched themselves." Such comments prompt human rights activist Jean-Jacques Honorat to charge that Aristide continues to use the implicit threat of mob violence for political leverage because he lacks traditional political party support. Aristide, who as an opposition leader was the target of several assassination attempts, has refused to condemn scores of revenge killings of suspected Duvalier collaborators.
Avoiding a crisis Last week Haitian legislators averted a crisis that could have led to the fall of the nation's government. Members of the lower house of parliament, who had debated holding a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Rene Preval's government, voted to delay action until the next parliamentary session. Mr. Preval has been under increasing pressure to account for what some legislators say is a lack of progress in reforming the corrupt government. Many, however, say the attack on Preval, who was appointed by Aristide, is an attempt by opposition parties to gain more power. Preval's fall, observers say, would likely have brought a violent reaction for Aristide supporters. In the grimy ghettos and the crowded markets of Port-Au-Prince, Aristide's true believers say they are simply looking out for their president. Although he now rubs elbows with bankers and diplomats, Titid's heart rests with the masses, says Monia Jean, who sells used clothes on a downtown street corner. "There are still no jobs and the economy is still the same," Ms. Jean says. "But there is much more liberty and much more hope.... All the other good things will come later."