FOR decades, Haiti was ruled by a series of dictators, whom the country's poor despised, but could not get rid of. Now they have a beloved leader whom they cannot keep.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide repeated his intention to leave office to foreign journalists at the National Palace yesterday. But he said his controversial remarks last week about possibly staying on were made in an attempt to listen to those who wanted him to stay in office. ''If we want to build a new Haiti, we have to cultivate a spirit of respect of dialogue,'' he says. ''The President has to be able to listen to all the voices.''
Mr. Aristide is scheduled to leave office on Feb. 7, after a presidential election set for Dec. 17. Many supporters believe Aristide is entitled to a longer term to make up for the three years he spent in exile. A right-wing military coup in 1991, led by now-exiled Gen. Raoul Cedras, ousted the former priest after just seven months in office.
''I would like this president to stay in power for three more years, because he's the only guy who has credibility in this country,'' says Carlo Napoleon, a spokesman for the Federation of Syndicated Workers, a Haitian labor union.
While Aristide has repeatedly stated his intention to leave office, he has not gone out of his way to dispel the notion of a longer term from the minds of his many supporters. He won in 1991 with more than 70 percent of the vote, and if he could run for reelection, would likely draw as much backing again.
In last week's speech at a national reconciliation conference, he fanned passions by telling a crowd of grass-roots groups he would not ''turn his back on'' those who want him to stay in office three more years.
In virtually the same breath, Aristide said he also could not ignore those who want elections. The ambiguous statement was enough to alarm US officials, who are still trying to regain a sense of certainly about the vote, which is less than three weeks away.
''We're not taking anything for granted,'' said Stanley Schraeger, spokesman for the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince. ''You have the possibility of extreme violence that would make the holding of these elections impossible. You still have the possibility of President Aristide declaring he wants to stay on three more years. Or you have what I think is the best possibility, that we can pull this off and have elections on Dec. 17 and move forward, and get this transition over with.''
American and United Nations officials view the election as crucial to the success of the American-led United Nations intervention that returned Aristide to office on Oct. 15, 1994, and was to restore democratic rule in Haiti. And they are expressing confidence that the vote will take place.
''This will be the first peaceful transfer of power in the history of this country ... from one president to another in a democratic manner,'' Mr. Schraeger said. ''It's the best chance that Haiti's ever had in its history to join the family of democratic nations around the world. And it's probably the best chance it will ever have.''
Aristide allayed the concerns of American and UN officials this week, in an interview in a highly regarded Haitian weekly, Libete, in which he flatly stated, ''I am leaving Feb. 7.'' Excerpts of the interview were released to international news media ahead of publication Wednesday, but the magazine didn't reach newsstands. The interview was conducted by Jean-Yves Urfie, a priest and former associate of Aristide.
''I think he was trying to handle this very controversial and sensitive issue among the Haitian people in a way that made them feel better about having been deprived of their choice [for president] and gave them a chance to express their feelings fully,'' says Barton Wides, counsel to the Haitian president. ''He is now trying to clear the air somewhat.''
Although the 1987 Haitian Constitution bars a president from standing for reelection, it doesn't address the issue of a president, such as Aristide, who has not served a full five-year term with full powers.
''There was a very good basis for suggesting that even if he were to have three more years, not a second term, that it wouldn't be inconsistent with the Constitution,'' Mr. Wides says. ''But I think he closed off that issue when he promised the international community, as part of the understanding when he went back, that he would step down.''
It remains to be seen just how the notion of a departing Aristide will go over among his supporters, as the election approaches. Some pro-Aristide groups have called for a general strike the day before the election, in an effort to disrupt the voting. Some of the 11 presidential candidates have received death threats. The UN has already bolstered its troop presence on the streets of Port-au-Prince and at government buildings.
But Carlo Napoleon, from the mountain town of Buteau-St. Etienne, says most Haitians who would like to see Aristide remain in power will respect his decision to step down ''The people believe in the president. Whatever he says, the people are going to agree with him, because he is the people.''
Although election day is looming, vigorous campaigning got under way only this week. Rene Preval, the ruling Lavalas party candidate and Aristide's prime minister before the 1991 coup, is expected to win easily.
He staged a busy three-day campaign swing through several cities in southern Haiti this week.
Mr. Preval's strongest challengers, observers say, will be Victor Benoit of the National Committee of the Congress of Democratic Movements, KONAKOM, which has supported Aristide in the past, and Leon Jeune, a former justice ministry official and a cousin of Aristide's.
''I'm trying to help all the candidates,'' Aristide said. ''It's part of my job as president.'' He says he can't deny he's a member of Lavalas but remains neutral.