Aristide to return largely on his own terms

October 11, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

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

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