Haitians who back Aristide

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Every Wednesday, several hundred poor women wearing white dresses and blue head scarves gather outside this capital city's cathedral to pray for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

They belt out songs with religious fervor, wave their hands in the air with rosary beads wrapped around their wrists, and plead for divine intervention in favor of their beloved president.

"We need peace, that's why every Wednesday we come here to talk with God," says Chantel Brown, a straw hat over her blue head scarf blocking the midday sun. "The president we have here is very popular. Some people want power, but they need to go to elections, because President Aristide is democratic and needs to stay for five years."

Aristide, who is trying to fend off his greatest crisis more than halfway through his second five-year term as president, might need the women's prayers.

In the past few weeks, Haiti has been riven by a spate of violent anti-government attacks that have left about 70 people dead and the northern half of the country, including the country's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, in the hands of armed rebels.

The rebels, who include an armed gang and an unknown number of former military and paramilitary officers, have announced their plans to overthrow the government and have declared independence.

Leaders of the political opposition in Port-au-Prince, who insist on their independence from the rebels, continue to call for Aristide's resignation, accusing him of corruption, of arming pro-government gangs and of driving the economy into the ground. The opposition, which has its greatest support among the minority middle and upper classes, has gained force in recent years as many Haitians have grown disillusioned with Aristide.

Reliable polls are few and far between in Haiti, the poorest nation in Latin America, but many here agree that Aristide has lost substantial support since easily winning elections in 2000.

In the sprawling slums of Port-au-Prince, however, where he crusaded on behalf of the poor as a Roman Catholic priest under military rule in the 1980s, Aristide continues to be widely seen as a hero fighting against a powerful and tiny elite and their international backers.

"We have a little power in our hands to help our children to get an education, but the elite have everything, and they want to control everything," says Rea Dol, 38, a kindergarten teacher at a community-organized school for poor children. "With a good education, a poor person can become president, like Aristide. His mother was poor, and he became president."

Life has not gotten much easier for Haitians under Aristide. Since returning to power in 1994 three years after being ousted in a coup, Aristide and political ally Rene Preval, president from 1996 to 2001, have been credited with opening hundreds of schools and dismantling Haiti's repressive military. But by many accounts, the nation's crushing poverty has worsened.

Antoine Theus sits with an infant child in his arms on the cement porch of his one-story cinder-block house in a slum called Delmas 32. He quit his job as a security guard at a factory in September, frustrated that he was spending nearly half his $2-a-day income commuting an hour each way on two buses. He has not found a job since.

His son graduated at the top of his high school class but has been unable to get into the overcrowded public university because the family has no contacts there. His wife, Dieula, complains of rising prices. Everything has gone up, she says, including rice, cooking oil and the fish she fries and sells on the street.

But the family feels no animosity toward Aristide. Instead, they blame the opposition, an amalgam of business leaders, student groups and minority political parties, for the nation's woes.

The opposition has refused to participate in elections since the Organization of American States ruled that the vote count for eight Senate seats in 2000 had been flawed.

The election boycott has resulted in parliament being suspended indefinitely, and international aid being partially frozen.

"It makes me feel so bad to see the misery he has had to struggle through," says Dieula Theus, 55. "If the opposition would just give him a chance, he would do some great things. I haven't gotten anything from him, but he's reached out to many others."

Aristide is an unlikely populist. Slender and short, he wears glasses and looks like he could be a bookish professor. His discourse is often indirect, relying on parables, and he speaks in a level tone that contrasts with the fiery oratory of the stereotypical Latin American caudillo, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But Aristide, who ran a home for street children when he was a priest, has an almost mythical reputation among the majority of Haitians who are black and poor. He is seen as one of their own and is loved by many as if he were a family member. He is also admired for having survived a coup and numerous assassination attempts, most of them when he was delivering bold verbal attacks on Haiti's brutal military regimes during the 1980s.

Now, Aristide finds himself in the opposite position, at the head of a tottering government that is being accused of human-rights abuses while being besieged by armed rebels.

Yesterday, in the rebel-controlled city of Gonaives, thousands marched in the streets, some drunken and armed, calling for Aristide's downfall.

A week ago, the leader of the armed gang that had taken over Gonaives announced an alliance with Guy Phillippe, a former police chief wanted by authorities for an alleged coup attempt in December 2001, and Luis Jodel Chamblain, co-leader of FRAPH, a paramilitary group that committed atrocities during the 1991-1994 military regime. For many poor Haitians, the appearance of Phillippe and Chamblain has rekindled nightmares of the bloody repression inflicted by death squads under the 29-year dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, and the military juntas that succeeded them.

In the slums of Port-au-Prince, armed pro-government supporters warn that they will defend Aristide should the rebels try a coup or attack the presidential palace. This month, Aristide promised the Caribbean Community, or Caricom, that he would disarm these supporters, dubbed chimeres by their detractors. But Aristide has made no apparent effort to do this. Analysts say these so-called "slum militias" might be Aristide's last line of defense.

Rilienne Richard says she also will be waiting on the street for the rebels should they come to Port-au-Prince.

Hundreds of women were raped by FRAPH forces in the early 1990s. Richard, 36, says she was one.

"We don't want to be victims anymore," she says. "We don't have arms, but we'll mobilize ourselves with a voter card in our hands to support the president. They have guns, and they're coming to kill us. But we're going to mobilize together to show the international community we all stand behind the president."

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