Hopes Fade for Aristide's Return

Enigmatic style of exiled Haitian leader troubles diplomats committed to his reinstatement

FOR impoverished Haitians, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, their first democratically elected president, evokes a mystical aura of liberty.

For others who don't live in that world of extreme poverty and fragile hope, he is no democratic hero. Some foreign diplomats and the Haitian elite see in the former parish priest, who alternates between beatific calm and frothy rhetoric, a dangerously erratic charismatic.

So perhaps it is no surprise that months of efforts by the Organization of American States (OAS) to reinstate the president after his ouster in a military coup Sept. 30 have so far failed.

Today, there are few in the diplomatic community who believe the Rev. Aristide can ever return to power, yet their policy remains hinged on his reinstatement. The exiled president was not even mentioned in last week's announcement in Haiti of a new provisional government.

International policy surrounding Aristide has become tangled because of the complexities of the man and his country that few outsiders understand, those close to Haitian affairs say.

"Negotiations have reached a cul de sac, and the OAS doesn't understand why. It's not so much a clash as it is a disconnect of culture," says Robert Pastor, director of the Latin American and Caribbean program at the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta. "To understand Aristide you have to start by understanding that he is perhaps the clearest embodiment of his nation ... the outside world has ever known."

While Aristide holds advanced degrees from abroad and speaks several languages, his loyalties lie with his constituents - 6 million Haitian peasants. Most live in almost medieval conditions of rural poverty and their moral codes owe more to African voodoo than constitutional democracy.

The OAS - which includes the United States - maintains a tough multilateral policy toward Haiti's de facto military rulers, built around Aristide's reinstatement. This policy is based on democratic principle, not any love for Aristide himself, most Haiti observers agree. Indeed, Aristide's antipathy for the US is well known, including references in his writings to the "disease" of capitalism.

Unqualified support for Aristide, simply because he was freely elected, put the OAS policy on a problematic foundation, long-time Haiti analyst Steve Horblitt says. "It's a simple-minded equation that an election by itself equals democracy. There's much more to democratic transformation than that," he observes.

In the rush to unconditionally back Aristide, OAS nations made "a great mistake," says Ernest Preeg, a former US ambassador to Haiti. "If we were going to play a mediator role we should have positioned ourselves independently, without taking one side."

Signs that the OAS had misread the situation were apparent just days after the coup when an OAS team arrived in Port-au-Prince to negotiate Aristide's return among diverse Haitian political parties and the military.

"We were taken aback by the breadth of support for the coup," says US negotiator Lawrence Harrison. "[Aristide] had done a major job of alienating almost everyone in the political parties from right to far democratic left, in the labor unions and business groups."

To be sure, many of the president's staunchest supporters were in hiding after the military coup. Even so, asserts Mr. Harrison, many former Aristide allies - in the unions and among democratic parties, for example - did not want him back. Aristide simply did not have wide support in the literate population, the social caretakers crucial in administering a nation of 80 percent poverty and illiteracy.

A chief complaint among the Haitian elite is that Aristide encouraged - or at least, did little to discourage - mob justice by peasant masses.

His ruling style is another point of criticism. He is reluctant to take traditional leadership, saying that initiatives should come from ground swells in the masses.

Foremen, chief executive officers, and administrators, he writes in his book, "In the Parish of the Poor," represent hierarchies of power antithetical to his philosophy of change originated from the grass roots.

It would be difficult for anyone to build consensus in Haiti's fractious political landscape, which has no history of democratic institutions. But not only did Aristide fail at this in his seven months in office, he also lost the support of some parties that had backed him in the election. In addition, government wheels did not spin, and the new president was never able to begin promised reforms of the court system and the military, for example.

Where decisions needed to be made, he often took them unilaterally. For example, he fired military officials, an action outside his constitutional mandate.

In the diplomatic arena, Aristide has steadily lost credibility. Harrison, who sat through months of talks with Aristide and Haitian elected officials, says Aristide was "unreliable."

Other US diplomats privately echo that sentiment, noting that diplomats pleaded with Aristide not to publicly press for prosecution of the military leadership that ousted him, for example. But even when they thought they had his word, OAS officials say, Aristide took every public opportunity to claim the criminality of the military.

When pressed on any of these criticisms, Aristide often takes a beatific attitude and a puzzled look that, with his words, suggest the whole premise of the question is based in another world, irrelevant to Haitians' world.

And, indeed, say those who know Haiti and Aristide, his nation does live in a world apart.

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