Montreal's Haitians Vow to Continue Vigil Until Aristide's Return

MARCHING two abreast in the sidewalk slush and bitter cold of Montreal at twilight, supporters of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide chant and sing protests as they have each day for the past five-months in a vigil seeking his return to power.

For these die-hard followers of Mr. Aristide, in one of North America's largest and most vocal Haitian communities, the Feb. 23 Washington announcement of a deal to return him to power in Haiti changed little. And the next day the deal was in doubt again.

"We plan to continue the vigil, because Aristide has not yet come back to Haiti," says protest leader Serge Boucherreau. "When he is back in Haiti we will stop the demonstrations."

The pact between Aristide and leaders of Haiti's National Assembly signed at Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington agrees to his return, but does not give a date.

That is not enough for Elijha Lubner, a 32-year-old plumber marching in the Montreal cold, who fled Haiti 10 years ago when it was still ruled by President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier. He says any deal to return Aristide must include a long-term commitment to democracy.

"We've been here every day since" the Sept. 30 coup, Mr. Lubner says. "Freezing rain, snow storms, any kind of weather, because what we want is democracy in Haiti. The killing and the shooting has to stop."

Nearly five months after Haiti's first elected government was toppled, support for "Titid," as Aristide is affectionately known among Montreal's 60,000-member Haitian community and supporters elsewhere, has never faltered. Community leaders say it has even increased.

"Even for those people who will never go back [to Haiti], the situation is important," says Jean-Claude Icart, leader of the Quebec resistance movement. "It's a question of identity."

Partly in response to this vocal community, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Secretary of State for External Affairs Barbara McDougall earlier took a tough line including statements that imply Canada would support military force to reverse the coup.

Sentiments here grew hot after a Jan. 31 United States Supreme Court decision permitting the Bush Administration to return 15,000 refugees who fled Haiti. That decision was reinforced by another high-court decision Feb. 24 upholding the administration on the issue. Several thousand refugees have been returned despite concern for their safety.

"We have been shocked by the decision to return the refugees," says Mr. Boucherreau, the blunt-spoken community leader. "We think that President George Bush is a hypocrite and an assassin."

In December, Aristide gathered support in Montreal, where his roots run deep. From 1984 to 1986 he studied at the University of Quebec in Montreal, recruiting several Cabinet ministers from Haitian expatriates he met. Claude Jean-Francois, a Montreal physician, was one of them.

Dr. Jean-Francois became Aristide's health minister just nine days before the coup destroyed the elected government and sent him and others into hiding. He is one of only two ministers to be allowed to leave Haiti. At least 10 others remain in hiding or in embassies in Haiti.

"I went, like the others, underground to save our lives," he says. "It was the first impression I had that the Haitian people are a great people, because they treated us with such kindness."

Jean-Francois was on the run for five weeks before gaining asylum in the Argentine Embassy. The military junta permitted his return to Montreal Jan. 22.

Despite hopeful signs in Washington, he worries the deal may cost Aristide and Haiti too much.

"We have to see what in that agreement really is fact," Jean-Francois says. "Democracy, justice, human rights have to receive some kind of respect."

Both Mr. Icart and Jean-Francois say it is important that Aristide now be allowed to return quickly, and that the OAS help bring the military under control.

"What's at stake is not just the future of Haiti, but also the stability of the Caribbean and of Latin America," Icart contends.

"The OAS must give to the Haitian people the power to reinforce democracy," Jean-Francois says. "If not we will continue to suffer. What we need is a real democratic process with prospects for the future."

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