Haitians now ask: 'What next?'
After Aristide fled Sunday, a key concern was how to restore order.
| PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI
Deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide liked to say that his country had suffered 32 coups, and he that he would die before becoming No. 33.
But in the end, Mr. Aristide - who was returned to power in 1994 by the United States - fled his office and his country on Sunday, this time under as much international as internal pressure to step down. The onetime democratic hope of the hemisphere's poorest country left under a cloud of doubts and near-complete rejection.
Haiti was living a tense calm Sunday as some citizens ventured out to see if a neighbor knew more about this historic moment. Some people in the capital waved arms triumphantly in the air, while some Aristide supporters in the center city looted shops and burned cars.
But all Haitians are left wondering: Is Aristide really gone or will he be back? What will the rebels do now? When will American troops arrive to restore order? And underlying it all: Will Haitians finally see a better day?
"We are happy, we are free," says Bab Saint-Croix, an agronomy student cautiously venturing out in the largely anti-Aristide Petion-Ville section of the capital. "Aristide took everything for himself, but now maybe we can make Haiti better," he adds. "We await the Americans and the rest of the world to come help us."
By press time Sunday, reports said the former Catholic priest turned president was fleeing to either South Africa or Panama. He had reportedly driven to the airport under US military escort before boarding a private jet at 6:15 a.m.
With in three hours, Haiti's Supreme Court Justice Boniface Alexandre announced that he had assumed power. But Mr. Alexandre must be confirmed by the parliament, and even before Aristide's departure, many members of the political opposition were questioning the acceptability of the Aristide appointee for the office.
Just when an international security force would arrive to restore order remained unclear. President Bush acknowledged Alexandre's role as interim president of Haiti, and said Sunday afternoon that he'd ordered a contingent of US Marines to the island nation as the leading edge of an international force. According to a State Department statement: "We have been informed that several other countries are prepared to move quickly to join this mission." The statement didn't specify when the Marines would land in Haiti nor what other countries will join in the peacekeeping mission.
Aristide, who came to power in 1990 as Haiti's first democratically elected president, was thrown out by the military in 1991 but then returned to his office - with the support of 20,000 US Marines - in 1994 as part of an American bid to restore democratic order. His return allowed President Clinton to trumpet at a summit of the Americas in December 1994 that for the first time the entire hemisphere - with the glaring exception of Cuba - lived under democracy.
But even former Aristide partisans say the leader returned bent on consolidating power - and became a caricature of the kind of authoritarian leadership he had supposedly been elected to replace. When Aristide won re-election in 2000 in fraudulent conditions, the US turned its back on its former protégé and joined others in the international community in cutting financial assistance.
Yet until last week the US was hesitant in its Haiti policy, claiming publicly it supported a plan that would have allowed Aristide to stay in power as a figurehead until the end of his term in 2006. But by Saturday, as violence by pro-Aristide forces mounted in the capital, the White House was openly calling for the Haitian leader's departure.
Even members of the political opposition to Aristide agree the forced ouster of an elected president is a stain on the country, but they insist the country had reached a point of ingovernability.
"For all Haitians it's a sad moment when the president leaves under dishonorable circumstances, but at the same time there was no alternative," says Jean-Claude Bajeux, a former culture minister under Aristide who had turned against the leader he once admired. "What had held such promise became a complete disaster as Aristide made controlling everything in the country his personal and only project."
Mr. Bajeux and other members of Democratic Platform, the opposition's umbrella organization, say Haiti now faces three key challenges and priorities: re-establishing law and order, disarmament of the armed groups - both pro- and anti-Aristide - that have recently taken control of sections of the country, and stepped-up cooperation with the international community.
Leaders of an armed rebellion, mostly former officers in Haiti's disbanded military, were reportedly planning to restore order. Rebel leader Guy Philippe, at his rebel base north of the northern port city of Cap-Haïtien Sunday, told the Associated Press that his forces would head for the capital. "We just hope no country will accept Aristide, so they will send him back to be judged. He did bad things," Philippe said.
In the weeks leading up to Aristide's departure, rebel leaders had said they just wanted the president to leave. They had no interest in taking power.
Political leaders in Haiti are now calling for an end to the violence. "By disarmament we mean of all the factions out there, and all indications are people will support that," says Mr. Bajeux.
Noting that the fearsome Aristide thugs called chimères - after a fire-breathing monster in Haitian folklore - that roam central Port-au-Prince and other sections of the country have "held part of the population prisoner," he says "the people will soon realize that this is liberation for them."
Mr. Saint-Croix, the agronomy student, is counting on the US military to do the disarming.
"We all are awaiting the American soldiers to come and provide security from the chimères and take their big guns away," he says, from a sea of nodding heads surrounding him. "Once these gangs are disbanded we can get back to school and people can work, and we will be free in Haiti."