WELCOMED by tens of thousands of cheering Haitians, holding branches and banners, and blanketed by tight security, a victorious President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to his homeland Saturday to reclaim his presidency after 1,111 days in exile.
``Today we embark on a new beginning,'' President Aristide said in his speech on the steps of the National Palace, ``ready to share peace, reconciliation, and respect among all our citizens.''
Aristide's speech was reminiscent of his inauguration on Feb. 7, 1991, except that this time he spoke from behind bullet-proof glass, a reminder that not all welcomed his return.
``The success of this mission from this small corner of the universe will reflect a new world order that we can re-create,'' he said.
``No to violence, no to vengeance, yes to reconciliation.''
But what will emerge from Haiti's new beginning is unclear. Haitians have had no experience with democracy during their 190-year existence except for the election and seven-month rule of Aristide, whose presidency was cut short by a coup in 1991. Instilling a sense of what exactly democracy is may be difficult.
Aristide immediately began meeting behind closed doors with Cabinet members, parliamentarians, and other officials upon his return to Haiti.
He has said he will soon announce a new prime minister to succeed businessman Robert Malval, who resigned last year after his attempts to govern were thwarted by the military.
Confronting a deeply polarized and defeated nation, whose poverty has been exacerbated by an international embargo to be lifted today, Aristide has said his top priorities will be to disarm and dismantle the security and paramilitary forces, to educate Haiti's illiterate, who account for more than 50 percent of society, and to begin rebuilding a shattered infrastructure. (With Aristide restored, everything changes, Page 3. US investors are eager to return to Haiti, Page 7.)
``Today is the day that the sun of democracy rises to never set,'' Aristide told an expectant crowd. But democracy means different things to different Haitians.
For Haiti's hungry, which includes more than a million who depend on humanitarian assistance for their meals, democracy means having food to put on the table. For the more than 50 percent unemployed, it means having a job. And for the homeless, it means having a place to sleep at night.
For the parliamentarians, it will require training to help them understand what their responsibilities are. For the Haitian elite, often used to running their businesses with little regulation, democracy may also mean new limits.
For Jean-Claude St. Fleur, an unemployed father of three, democracy means the poor should have the same rights as the rich. The only way he sees to achieve democracy, he says, is to take over land belonging to someone else.
``I've got no money, nothing to defend myself with,'' he says, standing atop a small hillside behind Haiti's International Airport, where nearly 200 people have marked off small plots of land for themselves.
``So I am here standing up for the hundreds - thousands - more like me all over the country. I don't have a place to sleep, so I am taking over this land and building myself one,'' he says.
The land is owned by a member of the bourgeoisie, who says the land is susceptible to being taken over simply because his family has waited to develop it. This is exactly the kind of thing that can cause social upheaval in the country, he says. Although sympathetic to the hardships of his fellow citizens, he also emphasizes that Aristide has to let the people know what the limits of democracy are.
``Someone has to explain it to them,'' he says. ``Democracy doesn't mean taking something from someone else if you don't own it. There needs to be law and order, and President Aristide better speak out clearly if he wants to keep things under control. I hope he does.''
Raymond Aubert, who is unemployed, says, ``We need a framework so we can lead our country in the direction we believe in.''
For the prisoners in Haiti's National Penitentiary, democracy meant freedom to break out. Hours before Aristide's helicopter shuttled from the airport to the palace, a dozen prisoners escaped, leaving behind about 400 others, who are living in what are widely acknowledged as horrendous conditions in a country with no functioning legal system.
To the residents of the seaside slum Cite Soleil, democracy means disarming the military. Angry residents stormed the small mustard-colored military post over the weekend.
They systematically dismantled the entire station using everything from crowbars to wooden clubs.
``Everyone has a different conception of justice, of democracy,'' says Cite Soleil resident Lucner Dominique, who, like hundreds of other people displayed special decorations for Aristide's return.
``I don't understand this destruction, but some people feel they have no other choice,'' he says.
``Me, I prefer to say democracy is a country where everyone works, where there is security and justice, where we stop having to ask for a handout,'' he says. ``That's what I'm waiting for, and I believe Aristide can give it to us.''