Aristide Claims Social Walls Have Started to Fall

SWEPT to office through widespread support in 1990 - but later deposed by the military and then returned to power by the US - President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has retained a high popularity among Haitians.

Though he has toned down his once-infamous "firebrand" preaching style, his message of reconciliation and "moving from poverty to dignity," still sings like gospel to his faithful.

"We had a country where rich lived on one side, poor on the other side, military on one side, civilian people on the other," President Aristide explained in an informal meeting with foreign journalists in the National Palace on Tuesday.

"Since October, we see the opposite of that process," he says, "rich and poor, private and public sector working together, building partnerships, relationships, paving the road for the new Haiti."

The president seems most proud of dismantling Haiti's 7,000-man military, an institution synonymous with repression and corruption.

When asked what his legislative priorities would be after the newly elected parliamentarians take office, he says, "The legal funeral of this Army, which doesn't exist anymore."

In place of the Army, Aristide has helped create, with the US, Haiti's first-ever Police Academy. By the time his five-year term ends next spring, Aristide expects to have 7,000 trained police pounding the beat in urban and rural areas.

As of this week, all new cadets will receive half of their four-month training in the United States, a decision Aristide has been criticized for because some of the most notorious human rights violators in the Haitian Army were trained in the US.

Aristide listed decentralization as a major priority for Haiti's future. Another is jobs. "So far we don't have those jobs yet, so to attract investors, to encourage the Haitian private sector, we need that political stability," he says.

Last February, Aristide told former President Jimmy Carter he would remain neutral for the elections. Much to the dismay of other parties, however, he sanctioned the Lavalas Party during the electoral campaign, which is expected to be the overall winner.

Graffiti scrawled throughout the country calls for the president to stay on three more years, but Aristide has repeatedly said he will respect Haiti's Constitution, which restricts a president from running for a second, consecutive term.

The president also denied his interest in being the prime minister.

"I like to listen to every single citizen, knowing what the Constitution asks me to do," he says with a smile, "and by Feb. 7, 1996, I will be delighted to welcome the one who will be elected, and say bye-bye to the palace, not my country."

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