'You love him or hate him,' say those who know Haiti's exiled president U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 20, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Who is Jean-Bertrand Aristide? What is he like? Where will he lead Haiti when he is returned to power?

To some, including some who know him well, he is a highly educated, religious intellectual who, given a chance, just might be able to put Haiti on the road to democracy.

Others have lower expectations of him, and of Haiti's prospects in general. Many in the Haitian elite loathe him enough to kill him.

Lawrence A. Pezzullo, President Clinton's former envoy to Haiti, warned in an interview last week that the restoration of Father Aristide would not end U.S. problems with Haiti.

That opinion was endorsed yesterday by Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President George Bush. "I think he is an erratic personality and very difficult," said General Scowcroft.

Asked if Father Aristide is preferable to the military leaders being forced to cede to him, Mr. Scowcroft said: "Hopefully he will be preferable, but this remains to be seen. He is a weak reed to lean American policy on. But he is ours now. We're responsible for him in a way. We've put him back."

But author Taylor Branch, who knows him well, has the opposite view.

Mr. Branch, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for "Parting the Waters," a book on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, recalled that during one of his visits to Father Aristide's apartment, his host took a history of Haiti down from a shelf in the study.

"In the back, it had a list of Haitian presidents," said Mr. Branch. "Father Aristide ran his finger down the list and told me they had all been assassinated or overthrown, and no Haitian president has ever been allowed to retire peacefully.

"Then he said, 'I expect my name to go on the bottom of this list, but I hope to break this cycle.' "

To Mr. Branch, Father Aristide -- Haiti's first democratically elected president in the country's 190-year history, who is about to be restored to office by the force of U.S. arms -- is a committed democrat who shares much with the American civil rights leader, Dr. King.

Democracy as a moral force

"Quite aside from Aristide's commitment to nonviolence -- which a lot of people doubt -- the really striking place of congruence between them is that they see democracy as a moral force."

Mr. Branch was instrumental in delivering to the Clinton administration a signed promise from the Haitian priest that he would relinquish power when his term of office ends in 1996.

Which is to suggest that not everyone has the same friendly opinion of the diminutive priest. Elected in 1990 by 67 percent of Haitian voters, he fell victim to a resurgent military in a violent coup on Sept. 30, 1991.

Father Aristide was handcuffed, brought out of the National Palace at gunpoint and bundled out of the country. He has spent the last three years in Washington working for his restoration. It is expected to occur in October, once the island nation is pacified.

During his exile, Father Aristide has gained many influential friends and supporters, people such as Mr. Branch and two Maryland Democrats -- Rep. Kweisi Mfume and former Rep. Michael D. Barnes.

Many are leery

But there are as many or more who remain leery of him.

Franklin W. Knight, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, regards Father Aristide as an authoritarian, not a democrat.

"He is convinced, you see, that he has the monopoly on truth and justice. He doesn't accept advice easily," said Dr. Knight.

"He is also contradictory. He says things like he is against socialism, but that the socialist way is the way to develop Haiti. He says he is against big business, but wants foreign capital for Haiti."

And he is charismatic, probably the most charismatic figure among Haitian political leaders today.

As such, reactions to him tend to be strong, one way or another.

"You either love him or hate him," said Dr. Knight. "Haitians say he has a great presence. He's like Fidel Castro. You go into a meeting with him as an anti-Aristide, and you leave a disciple."

Much of the opposition to Father Aristide in this country is in response to his inflammatory language at one point or another during his seven months in power, his alleged support for necklacing (a South African practice of killing someone with a burning tire) and his threat to unleash a popular uprising against the military.

According to Mr. Branch, the Haitian leader regrets these remarks. "He said it was only one speech, and it was made on the eve of the coup when his own officers were plotting to kill him." The threat of a popular uprising, he told Mr. Branch, was his only defense against the military.

Work with the poor

Father Aristide in his youth did not experience the squalor shared by so many of his supporters. His family was wealthy and held land in southern Haiti. He was educated at Roman Catholic schools in Port-au-Prince and ordained into the Salesian Order in 1982.

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