WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has tied the restoration of democracy in Haiti to the restoration of its democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a bespectacled sliver of a man who is the heart and soul of the impoverished core of his country.
But many political observers, including some members of Congress, argue that a democratic election does not a democrat make.
They say that, although Father Aristide was, indeed, elected by a two-thirds majority in Haiti's first fair and free election ever, the deposed leader's brief residency at the sprawling white presidential palace in Port-au-Prince showed few signs of democracy and, in fact, instilled terror in non-supporters.
During his eight months as president, these critics say, the Roman Catholic priest-turned-politician showed little regard for the legal strictures of his land, attempted to make political appointments without the consent of the Parliament, threatened journalists who were critical of his presidency and was said to have encouraged "necklacing," the practice of placing burning tires around the necks of one's enemies.
But portraits of Father Aristide are as polarized as the people of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere where one percent of the people control 40 percent of the wealth, and the average annual per capita income is $360.
Defenders say he is a peace-seeking, nonviolent leader deeply committed to ending his country's long history of desolation and bloody oppression.
"There are people who who criticize Aristide, who say that . . . maybe he's not really a political person," President Clinton said last week. "All I know is that in our dealings with him, he has done what he said he would do."
Yesterday, as the Senate debated whether to limit President Clinton's power to send troops to Haiti, it also debated the virtues and vices of the 40-year-old deposed president.
"This man is a psychopath," said Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina. "Aristide may have won an election, but he's not likely to win a medal for promoting true democracy."
Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said the leader's appeal was irrelevant. "He was elected in the freest and fairest election that the people of that little country ever held, and we in this nation ought to be willing to support that process."
In Washington, where Father Aristide has been living off and on since the September 1991 coup -- doling out $50,000 a month (from frozen Haitian assets here) to a law firm that represents him and visiting with lawmakers in his smart, double-breasted suits -- he's as mild-mannered, gentle and courtly as any visiting dignitary.
In Haiti, he has been a vastly different sort. To the legions of poor there, the man who speaks eight languages, writes books and composes church music is a savior, the preacher of "liberation theology," promising in fiery speeches to turn Haiti's class system on its head and offer hope and power to the
Poor support him
"President Aristide is the champion of the poor, it's that simple," said Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an Aristide ally, "and that's the majority of the people. The poor are totally behind him because he's going to give them a chance for a decent human life."
But to the middle class, to the business class, to the elites, the army, the political opposition and even the religious hierarchy -- those who threw him out of office -- he is a frightful figure, inciting violence against anyone who disagrees with him and continuing Haiti's long history of oppression and upheaval.
To be sure, human rights abuses declined under his regime, but, according to the State Department's 1991 human rights report, they did not disappear, nor did they change much in tenor from the previous dictatorial and oppressive regimes.
Most remarkable was a speech Father Aristide gave from the steps of the presidential palace in 1991, two days before the military coup that unseated him and two days after he had told the U.N. General Assembly that democracy had taken root in Haiti.
At a rally of his supporters, some of whom were holding up tires and machetes, he obliquely suggested that they punish political opponents with "necklacing."
"Do not fail to give him what he deserves," Mr. Aristide told the excited crowd about the opposition. ". . . What a nice tool. What a nice instrument. What a nice device. It is a pretty one. It is elegant, attractive, splendorous, graceful and dazzling. It smells good. Wherever you go, you feel like smelling it."
His stability is questioned
Although Mr. Aristide has insisted in interviews that the "instrument" he was referring to was Haiti's constitution, those familiar with the speech say there was no mistaking his intent.
"It was a call for a pogrom," said a former U.S. legislative aide involved in Haitian affairs. "He created the atmosphere for negligent homicide. It was scary."
Mr. Helms is not alone in questioning Father Aristide's mental stability. A CIA report in the late 1980s suggested that the Haitian leader suffers emotional problems that require psychiatric treatment and medication.
Longtime Aristide friends and associates deny the accusations, calling them part of a smear campaign to fray international support for the president's return.
"I can tell you as fact that this man has not suffered any mental difficulties over the past two years. I've been with him daily," said Michael Barnes, Father Aristide's top Washington representative. "These allegations are absurd."
He says the CIA, in its analysis, noted rumors about depression Father Aristide may have suffered after twice escaping assassination attempts.
A senior administration official told reporters last week that there were conflicting analyses on Mr. Aristide's stability, but that he himself had seen no evidence in meetings with the Haitian of mental illness.