Aristide to Pass Baton and Keep Running


FIVE years ago today, the Haitian people put their hopes on Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a firebrand ex-priest-turned-politician who was elected president. He was seen as bringing food, jobs, and security.

Things didn't exactly work out as planned. Of his five-year term, President Aristide served less than two years. A military coup forced him into exile September 1991. He didn't return until October 1994, protected by 20,000 foreign troops, mainly American.

In a ceremony at the Legislative Palace Feb. 7, Aristide will become Haiti's first president to hand over power to a democratically elected successor - his close friend Rene Garcia Preval.

While he can hand over power to run this small Caribbean nation to President Preval, Aristide cannot bequeath his mythical image as a savior to the Haitian people.

For most of the country's 7 million poor, Aristide always will be the embodiment of hope and change. From his pulpit as a Roman Catholic priest, then at the National Palace as president, and now in his home as a newlywed, Aristide gave Haiti's poor a voice.

''President Aristide played a historic role that's inestimable,'' said sociologist Suzy Castor, who is on a list to become prime minister under Preval. ''One can't put a price on how he has advanced democracy in Haiti. He helped the Haitian people understand their role in the political arena, one that every future leader will have to answer to.''

On the economic front, Preval inherits the poorest country in the Americas. An estimated unemployment rate of 60 percent has not lowered since the coup, but expectations remain high.

Factories have not reopened, because of a wait-and-see attitude from foreign investors. Aristide initially stalled at selling off nine state enterprises central to an economic deregulation program agreed upon with international financial institutions.

US foreign aid has dropped from $240 million to $90 million since his return, and the Republican-led US Congress wants to cut more.

But if people don't have more food, at least they have more security. One of the first things Aristide did upon taking office was to disband the Haitian Army. It carried out the coup and is widely regarded as participating in, if not sanctioning, the deaths of 5,000 Haitians while Aristide was in exile.

In an interview at the Palace last week, the outgoing president said that dissolving the Army was the act he was most proud of in his term.

''The Army was a source of fear,'' Aristide explained. ''A country without an Army [means] we can face the future with joy. And now that the Army is gone, certain hands can't use the institution in the same way. That solves many problems.''

But some of those hands, members of the small elite class who prospered from the steady stream of dictators that have ruled Haiti for 200 years, are still opposed to changes championed by Aristide.

''They need to understand that this is an irreversible process,'' the president said. ''There is no other way to save the country than to have the poor and the rich live together. We cannot have two countries living in the same one.''

To carry on his work of building bridges, Aristide has created a nongovernmental foundation to promote dialogue among all sectors of Haitian society.

''My house will be open to the rich and poor to discuss things, to cultivate dialogue,'' he said. ''[The foundation] is about strengthening ties, about democracy.''

Some analysts wonder if Aristide will be content with just the foundation, and his opponents worry that he will try to run the country from behind the scenes. Aristide is prevented by the Constitution from seeking a second consecutive term. Preval, who was elected with 87 percent of the vote, was Aristide's prime minister before the 1991 coup. He is sometimes referred to as Aristide's twin.

''Preval campaigned as a government of continuity, so he may be a slave to Aristide because they have the same clientele,'' says former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, who supported Aristide's restoration but is now considered the opposition.

Political allies of the incoming government insist that Preval will not be a puppet president. They say Aristide will guide, not dictate.

But they also recognize that any deviation on Preval's part would be political suicide. Aristide can rally popular support in an instant - a characteristic admired by his supporters and feared by his enemies. Besides political opponents, Aristide critics have included the Catholic Church hierarchy and some Republican congressmen in the US. They have accused him of preaching class warfare and inciting violence.

''I believe there is a division between Preval and Aristide,'' Mr. Paul said. ''Aristide's not happy that he's had to give power to someone else.''

Aristide remains adamant that UN troops disarm the former members of the military and paramilitary. If the UN mission is renewed as Preval proposes, active disarmament must be part of the mandate, Aristide says.

Aristide is a smarter salesman than before he took office and understands political gamesmanship, analysts say. He says he's willing to play, but he will take his orders from the people. ''They'll tell me what to do and how to do it,'' he said. ''The Haitian people are looking for someone who can step with them and provide justice, food, dignity, and land.''

''We're on the road with another democratic government. That's a lot, but is it enough?'' says Michel Hector, a dean of the University of Haiti. ''At least we're advancing. But there's huge problems, with huge responsibilities, not just to install democracy and include participation, but to develop an entire country.''

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