Haitian followers of exiled Aristide keep the faith

January 18, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Jean Claude Noel feels he has one of the most noble jobs in this dingy, depressed city. He is bodyguard of the St. Jean Bosco Church, the place where a frail priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide built a movement in which the poor rose up and forced an end to the military rule of their nation.

The church is now a charred shell, burned in September 1988 in a bloody attack by thugs who killed 10 people and hacked dozens of others with machetes. But in Mr. Noel's eyes, the white concrete facade stands as a symbol of hope that President Aristide, forced into exile by a military coup, will return to power.

"In my heart, I feel he will come back," said Mr. Noel. "Who knows, maybe he will come back, and the church can be rebuilt. If he does not come back, nothing in Haiti will be rebuilt."

Instead of squelching people's loyalties to Mr. Aristide, the fire that destroyed St. Jean Bosco fueled their enthusiasm. And interviews conducted in churches around Port-au-Prince indicate that even though Mr. Aristide has been out of power for nearly a year and a half, the hope of democracy rages on in their hearts.

"The soldiers have beaten me, and they still beat me because I won't stop talking about Aristide," said Walnear St. Louis, pulling up his shirt to show fresh welts.

"But we cannot stop," interrupted Mr. Noel. "He is our president. We voted for him."

United Nations special envoy Dante Caputo offered Haitians more reason to hope yesterday. He announced that Haiti's de facto government and military leaders have agreed to allow officials from the United Nations and Organization of American States to come to Haiti to study the human-rights situation.

Mr. Caputo, who said that military leaders displayed a "positive attitude" during talks last week, also said the government has agreed to negotiate a settlement to Haiti's political crisis.

The stated aims of the talks are the restoration of democracy and the return of Mr. Aristide as president, said Mr. Caputo. The army officials agreed to the terms, but Mr. Caputo said they refused to specifically endorse Mr. Aristide.

"It's very clearly understood that this is a contract," said Mr. Caputo, speaking about the agreement. "If they don't respect the contract, there will be consequences."

He would not elaborate on the consequences being considered.

The Rev. Antoine Adrien, one of Mr. Aristide's primary spokesmen in Haiti, was not moved by the agreement for negotiations.

"I'm not waiting for words," he said. "I'm waiting for deeds."

The 71-year-old priest said that he has heard many promises from international organizations the past 16 months. Most have been broken, he said, and then pointed to announcements from U.S. officials.

He stormed about President-elect Bill Clinton's decision to uphold an executive order by President Bush calling for all Haitian refugees to be repatriated without an opportunity to apply for asylum. The president-elect had sharply criticized the policy during his campaign.

"If you promise me the moon, I'll just look at you and smile because I know you are not serious," he said. "But if you promise me something that is in your power and you do not keep that promise, that is unacceptable."

The priest said his only hope for Haiti's salvation lies within the people themselves. More than a year after the coup, he says, Haitians continue to risk their lives and demand the return of President Aristide.

"In my mind, the coup has failed," he said. "The army has had to kill a boy in his hospital bed because he witnessed a massacre. They forced a man who was hanging Aristide posters to eat those posters, and he suffocated. They beat up a girl's mother because the girl had organized a rally for Aristide.

"If the army has to do those kinds of things, then their coup failed. They have not won the hearts of the people. Those belong to Aristide."

At the cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince, that hope was the focus of the sermon by the Rev. Clancy Guerlain, a 31-year-old priest.

"You must continue to resist," he told a congregation of some 2,000 who cheered and applauded his words. "The repression is strong. But we, too, are strong."

As he closed the mass, he said, "Go with God and have courage."

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