Jean-Bertrand Aristide may be indelibly marked for assassination as he dares heal his ugly, fragmented Haiti.
"But I am not afraid for my life," claims Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti in 200 years. Six months ago, he also became the new republic's first democratically elected president to be exiled.
"I will never die. One day my body will go out through death. But it will not be the death of my spirit."
Aristide--in Los Angeles last week to talk human rights and plumb American support for Haiti at high schools, churches and City Hall--speaks no doubts about his future: Despite a crumbled power structure, a puppet president and a coup general clinging to office, he will return to Haiti. This time, he says, it has been mandated by the 34-nation Organization of American States, whose agreement needs only ratification by Haiti's National Assembly.
"Here is a chance for OAS to save its credibility and a chance for the international community to show how they can defend democracy," Aristide continues. Those combined opportunities, he believes, will restore democracy--and Aristide--to Haiti.
No one is quite sure when, or if, the OAS agreement will be ratified.
Regardless, his Caribbean island is a disaster, its vital signs and percentages primal. The population is 85% illiterate, 80% earn less than $150 a year, infant mortality is 25%, and 5% of the population controls 50% of the wealth. The poorest, unhealthiest, dirtiest, bloodiest, most desperate nation in the hemisphere, it is no traditional place for humanitarians--even a president who has preached Jesus' love and justice while slinging an Uzi.
Why would anyone want to lead such a place?
"First . . . it is my responsibility," says Aristide, a 38-year-old former Salesian priest. "I am Haitian, it is my country, I give my life for my country, for sharing love, for fighting peacefully for justice and democracy.
"Second . . . I am the president, and my place is in Haiti to continue what I have accepted for five years.
"Third . . . how great is that people who continue to give their lives to change their lives, to fight with their hands while other hands are filled with weapons?
"How can I accept staying far from them?"
Violence has always been more common than peace as a Haitian ideology.
The nation was founded in 1791 by slaves who spent 13 years dislodging and slaughtering the French masters of their rich sugar, coffee and spice fields.
Unsophisticated, Haitians had no grounding in government beyond tribal ways and the legacies of white monarchists. Those with the most machetes won office. Haitian history became a 200-year skein of emperors, governors and presidents-for-life.
Voodoo survives in Haiti. So does a mixed-race ruling elite, descendants of the French and their slaves, who control Haiti's civil service and professions, wealth and clout.
Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, a country doctor, grabbed the island in 1957 and dictated through the military and his personal goon squad, the murderous Tontons Macoute. Papa Doc died in office in 1971.
His son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, continued the tyranny until 1986, when rebels forced him to flee to France.
Corrupt Haiti broke down in subsequent upheavals. Roads have fallen apart. When they work, utilities provide power in four-hour spurts. Only 13% of the population has access to potable water.
But in 1990, the nation's grass roots sprouted.
Aristide--a liberation theologian priest since expelled by his order for urging class warfare and social justice through an odd meld of Christianity and Marxism--promised a clean, working future.
Despite the 7,000-man military and its generals, drug lords who sometimes were generals and businessmen behind 10 other candidates, the people prevailed. With United Nations poll watchers to assure fair play, Aristide swept 66% of the vote.
There have been three attempts on his life. A military coup started and failed. When another stirred, generals made sure troops and guns were in the streets before the president's supporters could stir.
Ergo, nine months after election, Aristide was in exile in Caracas, Veneuzuela.
The OAS has since established a hemisphere-wide economic embargo of the new administration, which has brought Haiti close to starvation. An agreement has been drafted under which the deposed president would be returned to office. Aristide has agreed to accept a political opponent as prime minister and remove the army head who commanded the September coup.
When the accord is ratified, the embargo will end, and a $450-million program of international aid will resume.
But that future, according to diplomats and Haiti watchers, is far from clear. Even if ratified, the accord might not hold. The coup general could have even more power up his sleeve.
As in other republics, Aristide may be maneuvered into a position of vastly reduced powers. Or, say other observers, popular support could wane if Aristide proves less than an immortal savior.
There have been reports that he is subject to fits of depression, which Aristide denied in an interview with The Times: "As a psychologist, I want to meet those people. And see what sickness they have."
Some have said his love-peace ideals of the '60s have no application in a hungry, abused, still cruel Haiti of the '90s. They also see hypocrisy--at least opportunism--in a man suddenly embracing the United States he once attacked as sinful and exploitive.
Aristide frequently deflects direct questions with abstract answers. And some say his statements and personality sometimes appear egotistical.
On the other hand, there is praise for his undeniable courage in campaigning against Haitian powerbrokers, including those suspected of murdering political opponents.
And some suggest that, despite suspected flaws or hidden agendas, Aristide may be the best hope for a nation that in 200 years has barely budged from a state of slavery to one of dire deprivation.
A small, delicate man of neutral body language and unblinking eye contact, Aristide speaks an English that is long on vocabulary but short on direction and structure.
The voice carries to just past his nose and doesn't rise when questions challenge his mission as a man of God, elected to serve the people:
Question: Why does he support an OAS economic embargo that clearly is starving the poor who voted for him?
Answer: There are two embargoes in Haiti. One is long-standing, secular, and has created "85% illiteracy because of 8% of the people trying to impose their will . . . to exploit those who do not go to school."
The second is the OAS embargo, which "poor people accept because they knew that . . . having a complete, total, integral embargo would not only open the door to . . . democracy but at the same time would put away the secular embargo."
Q: During his presidential campaign, Aristide said that some American businessmen were "blood suckers" and that the U.S. government was formed from "cold imperialists to the North." How does he rationalize such dislike with accepting American assistance?
A: "It is not today I am talking that way. I (was) talking that way when I (was) talking about developing good relationships and respect. Now in our relations with the United States, we can talk democratically, we share respect and it is very nice when we do it that way.
Aristide said he wasn't referring to all American businessmen, all politicians or all Americans. But his personal philosophy has always been to earn respect by calling things as he sees them.
"It is most important for me . . . to continue building solidarity with United States, and in that way to go to democracy . . . because we are citizens of the world and our task is to make this world better."
Q: What caused his past criticisms?
A: "Why do I have to remember the past when the present is more important to build the future? The present is the evolution where we share respect, where we talk, where we look for solutions."
Q: As he was removed from office by a military coup, will he allow that same military to remain in a position of control?
A: "According to the constitution, the army has to protect sovereignty, life, not to protect interests of those who are involved in drugs. Once I became president, we saw how military were fighting against narcotics traffic. After seven months, unfortunately, they stopped.
"Going back means being able to go back to that same line (limitation), the line (limitation) of the constitution, and to fight against drugs and corruption. We can build a beautiful democracy with an army which will be professionalized."
Q: Given the task of rebuilding Haiti from the bottom up, where does a new president start?
A: "The country looks like a broken glass since Sept. 30 (the coup). You have the pieces lying down. My task consists of welcoming the different sectors, to build a unity . . . respecting as always the position of this sector and that sector.
"I want to put all the pieces together."
Q: You once said that if Haitian democracy was ever threatened, the people would rise up to protect it. Where were your people during last year's coup?
A: "They have been doing that for five months. When there was (an earlier) coup, the people went to the streets and stopped the coup. The enemies realized that, and the next coup knew people would react that way.
"So before those people went to the streets, he (coup general) put those weapons in the streets and killed 2,000 people.
"They went to the streets to protect democracy, and if I didn't ask people to not expose their lives, more people would have lost their lives."
Q: Your first government was criticized because the cabinet had little experience in politics, trade or national administration. Will you search for better credentials in your new government?
A: "It is the first time in our history, when seeing those first seven months, you realize there is no corruption. Nobody in the government was putting state money in private pockets.
"We can welcome politicians, but when you look at the past of our country . . . misery, corruption, dictatorship, blood, who did that to this country? Politicians. So we wanted to have another experience."
Q: Do you believe, as some Haitians seem to believe, that you have supernatural powers and can never be killed?
A: "No, no. I don't believe in those things. I am a Christian, I believe in the spirit of love, of freedom, of justice. And I believe the body can die, but the spirit will never die.
"The same way with Jesus. They killed him but, 2,000 years later, the feeling is he is still here. He doesn't disappear."
Q: Will people still be feeling the influence of Jean-Bertrand Aristide 2,000 years from now?
A: "They will still feel the influence of love . . . and if I continue to live in this state of love through this period, I will be presented the same way."
Q: Does any one human have the strength to resolve this enormous task, to bring stability to Haiti?
A: "I usually finish my speeches with this sentence: Alone we are weak, together we are stronger, all together we are a force for peace and social justice.
"We believe in community, we believe in a nation, we believe in solidarity among nations. So when we get together, we can make a lot of beautiful things."