Haiti a Year Later: Aristide Nurtures Peace and Stability
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — IT looks and sounds like a Caribbean carnival as hundreds of people dance, sing, and drum their way down one of Port-au-Prince's main streets.
But the revelers are celebrating the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide - still celebrating a year after he descended to the lawn of the National Palace in a US Army helicopter on Oct. 15, 1994.
Haitians in the capital's poorest neighborhoods say they still enjoy the simple pleasure of staying out on the streets late at night without fear of being shot at by the paramilitary men known as attaches, who served in the ousted regime of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras.
The attaches are blamed for killing 4,000 people during the three years of military rule that began with a deadly coup that ousted President Aristide on Sept. 30, 1991.
Some Haitians, however, are still shooting. Henri Max Mayard, a general in the Cedras regime, was shot to death by men in a passing vehicle last week in a Port-au-Prince suburb. At least 20 other members of the Cedras regime have been shot to death over the past year. Many of the shootings may be revenge killings by some Aristide supporters, many Haitians say.
But many Haitians, including Aristide's political opponents and business leaders, credit him for keeping violent vengeance to a minimum.
Aristide immediately condemned the Mayard killing and urged Haitians to ''heed the call for peace, reconciliation, and justice,'' a call he started issuing even before his return last year from three years in exile.
''Before coming back on Oct. 15, 1994, I said that the restoration of democracy would bring peace, reconciliation, and justice for every single citizen,'' Aristide said in an interview last week at the National Palace. ''Now I can say: It's beautiful to live in a country ... that is in peace.''
The main reason for that relative peace, Haitian officials say, is the dismantling of the Army, a task Aristide set in motion after his inauguration in February 1991, but one that was cut short by the coup seven months later, which left hundreds dead and forced him to flee the country.
Today, the priest-turned-president has virtually achieved that goal. All that officially remains of the Army is its brass band, which played at the National Palace during a gathering last week of cabinet ministers and members of the newly elected parliament.
''The main accomplishment is stability,'' says Prime Minister Smarck Michel, a businessman who served as commerce minister in Aristide's first Cabinet. ''Security, stability, confidence [are] coming back in the general population.''
Reaching out to business
President Aristide has also won the confidence of many members of Haiti's wealthy private sector, some of whom fiercely opposed him before and during the coup.
''I think that this is maybe the opportunity to get rid of this repressive structure, which was the Army, and try to move into a more civilized, ordained, modern society,'' says Rudolph Boulos, whose pharmaceutical company is across the street from one of Port-au-Prince's huge slums.
His brother, Reginald, a doctor who runs a number of clinics in the capital, sits on Aristide's education commission, one example of the president's newly forged collaboration with the private sector.
The commission is overseeing the rebuilding of dilapidated schools and providing buses to get children to them. It's also spearheading a literacy campaign, one of President Aristide's top priorities. Some 85 percent of Haitians cannot read or write.
''When I came back, we didn't have one cent in the budget of the government for a literacy campaign,'' Aristide said. ''We moved from zero to 13 million gourdes [$930,000] and now we have ... 75 million gourdes [$5 million] for the literacy program.''
Other joint ventures uniting the Aristide government and the private sector, with the help of the French Development Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and international lenders, include water and sanitation systems, irrigation, road repair, reforestation, and river cleanup.
The fate of Aristide's accomplishments of the past year will soon be in the hands of a new parliament, which is due to convene this month to take up several pressing matters. Among them are what Aristide hopes will be the ''legal funeral of that so-called army.'' Such a death knell is likely to toll in parliament, since members of the pro-Aristide Lavalas Platform Organization will occupy 80 percent of the seats in the lower chamber and two-thirds of them in Senate.
Some of the Lavalas coalition lawmakers, however, are threatening to scuttle Aristide's proposed budget, primarily because it calls for the privatization of nine state-run companies, a move perceived by some as tantamount to selling out to foreign investors.
If the legislators make good on their threat, millions of dollars of foreign financial assistance - amounting to about half of the budget - would fall through, because the donors are insisting that the state-run companies be sold off.
Prime Minister Michel says he has been trying to persuade Haitians of the merits of privatization for six months. It would generate funds for badly needed social programs, he says. The money once used to subsidize the state enterprises would be combined with tax revenue from the new privately owned companies.
''That will make quite a bundle for the government to intervene in the social sector, both in education and health,'' Mr. Michel says.
Some Haitians are skeptical about whether the parliament will be able to accomplish anything, regardless of whether it passes or rejects the budget. Many of the new members have never held public office.
''What kind of expectations can one have from people who don't have the practice of doing something?'' says Jean Buteau, a mango exporter and a member of a Haitian business association that supports Aristide's recovery plan. ''You can only hope that they do their best.''
''I don't have much hope for the new parliament,'' says Mr. Boulos, the pharmaceutical company executive. ''We don't have any parliamentary tradition. We have not seen any parliament work effectively in the last 40 years.''
Elections will test stability
President Aristide is more optimistic.
''I think my country is back to business. We have political stability. We are fortifying this political stability, which we have to do day after day.
''And that's why I renew my call to see foreign people, investors, coming to my country, to invest here and participate in that economic development.''
An election for four members of parliament and seven town councils will be held this Sunday, a continuation of the June 24 elections that resulted in charges of irregularities.
But the next real test of Haiti's political stability will be a presidential election due to be held in December.
President Aristide is barred from running in it, but whomever he endorses is expected to win easily. Officials say he is likely to name that person this month.
* Monitor Radio will air a radio version of this article Friday.