PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The billboards declaring the inevitable went up even before the first vote had been cast. They boast a huge photograph of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide with the simple and foregone declaration in Creole: "Feb. 7, 2001. Peace in the Head. Peace in the Belly."
The date refers to the presidential inauguration that, depending on one's point of view, is seen as Aristide's appointment with destiny or infamy. He is the only real candidate in today's presidential election, because almost all opposition political parties, civic groups and international observers are sitting out the contest after flawed vote-counting in May's legislative elections gave Aristide's Lavalas Party an overwhelming majority in Parliament.
The peace proclaimed from the billboards has been scarce in recent weeks. At least 11 pipe bombs have exploded, killing two people, including a 7-year-old girl. The streets of Port-au-Prince were quieter and emptier than usual yesterday morning, as many people left town or closed their businesses early just in case there was unrest. Throughout the night, riot police with assault rifles patrolled; residents of poorer areas improvised roadblocks from concrete, logs or twisted car chassis.
"Peace in the belly" has been elusive in recent years, since the economic morass fostered by meager investment and withheld foreign aid made life harder for this nation's impoverished masses. In the poorest neighborhoods, where Aristide is regarded as a savior whose previous attempt at leading Haiti to progress was cut short by a 1991 coup, there is excitement at mere mention of his name.