Aristide to return largely on his own terms


WASHINGTON -- In the earthy Creole that Jean-Bertrand Aristide uses to commune with Haiti's masses, images of water and fire dance off his tongue.

Nowadays, he speaks soothingly in broadcasts home of dousing the blaze of violence. Justice and reconciliation will "spread the light of peace," he says.

But a menacing echo lingers: "Lavalas," the name of his political movement, means a flood that "scours everything in its path," he once wrote, bringing down "all Duvalierists, all Macoutes, all criminals." If he didn't encourage mob assassinations using flaming, gasoline-filled tires, neither did he condemn them.

The slight, hushed-voice priest who reclaims Haiti's presidency this week calls himself a peace lover. But he remains a revolutionary determined to overhaul his country's political and economic life, and is capable of using the Gospel, as he once put it, "like a stick of dynamite."

He has lost none of his intimacy with the impoverished majority that first propelled him to power nearly four years ago, putting in his delicate grasp an explosive power over hearts and minds that terrifies his enemies.

This will keep Washington on edge throughout the remainder of his presidential term, which ends in early 1996, and test the restraints imposed by American and United Nations forces and international aid organizations.

To catch history

"I have never let myself be pushed around by history; I have always wanted to catch hold of it and guide it," he wrote in his autobiography shortly after being overthrown three years ago.

He now has that chance. And the broad grin breaking these days across his usual poker face may derive from the fact that he returns to Haiti largely on his own terms:

He hopes to show his independence from the U.S. forces who paved the way for his return. But his government will be protected by thousands of troops from the same Uncle Sam he once disparaged, and he has asked for a U.S. delegation to accompany him.

His most powerful foes have been defanged. His poor followers demonstrate without fear. And the United States and other international donors will back his ambitious reconstruction plans with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

All this contrasts mightily with Oct. 2, 1991, when, three days after he was overthrown in a bloody coup, he first appealed for world support at a meeting of the Organization of American States. In the vaulted OAS chamber here, the diminutive Father Aristide looked the picture of lonely martyrdom. Few thought his wretched country worth a fight.

Everyone, it turns out, underestimated Father Aristide's drive to change Haiti.

Ever since his childhood during the brutal Francois Duvalier dictatorship, he has seen Haitian society in stark frames of good and evil.

"Even a child of 10 or 12, protected by his mother, could not avoid sensing the death that lurked everywhere," he writes in his autobiography, "Aristide."

Spouse of the masses

His relationship with Haiti's poor, who have nicknamed him "Titid," is one of mutual reverence. He has referred to himself as the twin, and even spouse, of the masses. Though well-educated, multilingual and well-versed in Catholic theology, he respects voodoo's place in Haiti's peasant culture.

The enemies are the vestiges of the past, the business oligarchy and politicians allied with both. Add to this the Catholic hierarchy, which he charges colluded with dictators and, at least in the past, the U.S. government.

These views seem to have colored his fleeting term in office. While Haiti's abysmal human rights record improved during his seven-month presidency, it didn't change completely.

The State Department human rights report for 1991 says that President Aristide "appeared less concerned about prosecuting members of the military accused of human rights abuses if they were supporters or appointees of his government."

After police tortured and killed five young men in their custody, Father Aristide "attempted publicly to exonerate" the officer whom the army held responsible, the report said.

This record pales against the carnage perpetrated by the military dictators who overthrew him. But it reflects the ugly divisions that any Haitian politician would have trouble healing, let alone one with Father Aristide's suspicious nature.

This trait was evident during his exile in Washington, when he rejected compromises that would have required him to share power with opponents.

His attitude frustrated a succession of U.S. diplomats who tried to broker a peaceful return to Haiti for him, and caused a bitter breach with Robert Malval, the wealthy Haitian whom Father Aristide, from exile, appointed as prime minister and who tried to forge a centrist coalition.

Resigning, Mr. Malval accused Father Aristide of dirty tricks, back-stabbing and trampling on his prerogatives.

Ultimately succeeded

But the priest's resistance to compromise ultimately succeeded for him, particularly after Haiti's military proved even more stubborn. The exiled president helped trigger a full-blown political crisis for President Clinton last spring by denouncing the forced repatriation of Haitian boat people.

The upshot was a 180-degree turn in U.S. policy, setting a course that would eventually lead to the dispatch of 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti.

Father Aristide was bolstered by access to about $90 million in fees to the Haitian government that were blocked for his benefit by the U.S. Treasury. More than $50 million has been spent to maintain Haitian embassies loyal to him and to pay lawyers and )) publicists knowledgeable about Washington.

But the pro-Aristide campaign would not have succeeded had it not been for U.S. and United Nations outrage over acts of repression, murder and rape committed by Haiti's dictators.

Living first in Georgetown and later in a recently renovated downtown Washington apartment complex, Father Aristide put in long working hours, telephoning supporters and contacts worldwide, but rarely ventured outside except for meetings and speeches.

When not working, he often read or played his guitar. A Haitian woman cooked his meals; he avoided restaurants. His double-breasted suits were ordered by members of his staff.

He participated in religious services for slain colleagues in Haiti, and said a public prayer at the opening of the movie "Philadelphia."

He attended the Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy's wedding, drawing criticism for frivolity from Haiti. But at the reception, he declined an invitation to dance with Ethel Kennedy.

Where he's now headed, albeit by peaceful means, is radical change.

"What we are trying to do," says Jean-Claude Martineaux, an Aristide spokesman, "is to change Haiti from a country living in its Middle Ages to a country that wants to enter the 21st century."

To shrink the army

Father Aristide aims to shrink the army, moving it to bases outside major towns and filling the vacuum with a newly trained civilian police force. Reform of the judiciary will start immediately, Mr. Martineaux says.

The returning president and key advisers have mapped plans to rebuild Haiti literally from the ground up. They want to replace denuded forests and build roads, schools and clinics, and sell off state industries. He will demand something almost unheard of for members of Haiti's elite: taxes.

Father Aristide is expected to give key roles to the "two Leslies" -- Education Minister Leslie Voltaire and economist Leslie Delatour, both of whom have won international respect.

But other Aristide advisers stir alarm. One of his closest is former Prime Minister Rene Preval, a leftist remembered for urging popular defiance of Parliament.

Father Aristide's Washington exile has doubtless made him far more sophisticated in dealing with the United States and other major world governments and international organizations.

Many question, however, whether he will be able to broaden his base in Haiti enough to foster lasting democratic institutions.

Georges Fauriol, director of the Latin American program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees Father Aristide as one who still "interacts with his public, in the way you would find in a small town or small village," and has trouble dealing with other institutions in a democracy.

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