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NEWS ANALYSIS : Disputes About Aristide Add to Dilemma on Haiti : Caribbean: Some see ousted leader as prophet, others as madman. Controversy complicates U.S. policy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To his most devoted followers, he is a latter-day Old Testament prophet whose jeremiads against the mistreatment of Haiti’s long-suffering poor bring down the wrath of the Establishment, religious as well as secular. To his severest detractors, he is a political radical and a madman.

Now, almost three years after the bloody military coup that drove him from the presidency of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide has become a living symbol of his country’s brief experiment with democracy--and of one of President Clinton’s most difficult foreign policy conundrums.

Under a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted July 31, Clinton has the authority--should he decide to use it--to invade Haiti and clear the way for Aristide to return to the presidential palace that he left in handcuffs Sept. 30, 1991.

So far, Clinton has put his faith in economic sanctions to drive out Haiti’s military leaders. His reluctance to use force is described by Administration officials as prudence and derided by Aristide’s supporters as an indication that the President is less than serious about his own policy toward an impoverished island republic with a mostly black population.

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In defending the Administration’s effort to oust Haiti’s military dictators by whatever means, Clinton emphasizes traditional U.S. support for democracy. The growth of free societies throughout Latin America, he argues, is a fragile process that must be nurtured and protected as a matter of U.S. national interest. And he maintains that the unbuttoned brutality of the present military regime sows instability--including waves of impoverished refugees--in a region too close to the United States to ignore.

But the question of whether to risk the lives of U.S. troops to restore Aristide to power cannot be divorced from another puzzle: the complex, mystifying and often-irritating personality of the 41-year-old Roman Catholic priest himself.

In fact, Aristide is not a politician at all but a theologian who had spent years scorning politics and politicians from the pulpit. Drawing something bordering on adoration from Haiti’s impoverished masses, he captured two of every three votes in what is generally regarded as the only free and fair election in Haiti’s history.

His personality is immersed in mythology--some of it clearly of his own making. In both Haiti and the United States, people love him or hate him, with very few falling in between.

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After surviving for almost a decade as an anti-Establishment firebrand in a country that is among the world’s leaders in per-capita political killings, Aristide has developed an aura of immortality.

In a 1985 incident that forms a central part of the Aristide mystique, the future president delivered a stinging denunciation of the Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier dictatorship from the pulpit of the cathedral of Port-au-Prince, near the presidential palace. Later, a man suddenly appeared in the church and pointed a pistol at Aristide from close range. For a few seconds the men stared at each other. Then the gunman opened his revolver, removed the bullets and handed both to the priest.

To Aristide’s supporters, it was a miracle.

On Sept. 11, 1988, thugs, almost certainly dispatched by the dictator of the day, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, burned down Aristide’s church and killed at least 12 parishioners. But Aristide escaped.

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Between assassination attempts, Aristide preached a social gospel, emphasizing the Bible’s warnings against mistreatment of the poor. With his words circulated on audiocassettes, he developed a devoted following in the slums of Port-au-Prince and across the impoverished countryside.

But as Aristide’s reputation grew among the poor, Haiti’s well-to-do elite reacted to him with fear and hatred. To the wealthy, he was a radical, a Communist and a menace. And the upper classes were terrified by passages in some of his speeches that seemed to be calls for mob justice.

The Catholic hierarchy joined the elite in its opposition to Aristide. Shortly after the 1988 fire that destroyed his church, Aristide was suspended by the Salesian Order, which accused him of fomenting class struggle.

Not all of the questions about Aristide, however, can be dismissed as politically motivated. He is known to be subject to wide mood swings, cited by detractors as evidence of madness.

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After his church was destroyed and he was stripped of his priestly duties, for example, a depressed Aristide disappeared from public view for a considerable period of time. But to one supporter, “depression was the only sane reaction” to such a series of reversals.

To neutral U.S. observers, Aristide clearly comes off as eccentric. But judged from his conduct in office and later in exile, he seems to be at least as capable as many of today’s political leaders.

If the Cold War were still on, Aristide’s speeches--at least those he delivered before his election--would have given U.S. policy-makers the willies. But as president, his policies were far more moderate than his rhetoric might have suggested. And, with communism in retreat around the world, Aristide’s words seem less threatening than they once might have.

If it is U.S. policy to support democracy around the globe, it can hardly turn away from Aristide, who won a greater share of the popular vote in Haiti than, for example, any U.S. President since James Monroe, the nation’s fifth.

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Moreover, Aristide’s return to power would certainly stem the unwelcome flow of Haitian refugees to the United States, most of whom are Aristide supporters facing repression by the military government.

If Aristide regains power, it seems inevitable that some of his supporters will try to even scores with the military and the Haitian elite. A blood bath could be a severe embarrassment to the Administration. But during Aristide’s brief tenure, human rights violations fell far below the bloody Haitian standard established during earlier regimes, so there is reason to believe that retaliation can be kept in check.

Since Aristide was deposed, he has been biding his time in exile, living in a modern Washington apartment building and waiting for the United States to restore democracy to an island nation that has known only seven months of it in 190 years.

Asked if he wants to return to office behind U.S. bayonets, Aristide usually says the Haitian constitution prohibits him from advocating foreign intervention. But then he says the Haitian people want to regain democracy regardless of the method, so it is up to the international community to decide on the means. Sometimes he seems to rule out U.S. military action, while at other times he seems to encourage it.

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The ambiguity of his position seems to be carefully crafted. But it leads to widespread misunderstanding and tends to undercut his own supporters.

There is some irony to Aristide’s reliance on the support of the United States. He used to denounce “the cold country to the north” and blame it for most of Haiti’s woes, from the grinding poverty to a constant succession of dictators.

In the years that preceded his election, Aristide’s rhetoric was often anti-American. Critics on Capitol Hill such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) frequently quote Aristide’s verbal excesses as evidence that he is not a person Washington should help or trust. While in office and later in exile, however, Aristide softened his criticism of U.S. policy.

Randall Robinson, executive director of the TransAfrica think tank and a devoted Aristide supporter who earlier this year staged a hunger strike on his behalf, says Aristide’s rhetoric was understandable in light of U.S. involvement in Haitian history, which includes an invasion and a 19-year occupation starting in 1915.

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“It is not surprising that sane people representing the poor in Haiti would use rhetoric that might sound to Americans to be anti-American,” Robinson said. “If this Administration succeeds in restoring democracy in Haiti, that, for the first time, puts a new page in this book. I would assume that on that occasion, President Aristide would respond differently.”

The George Bush Administration clearly was displeased by Aristide’s election victory, unenthusiastic about him in office and, following his ouster, ambivalent in its support for his restoration. Although the Administration voted for a resolution in the Organization of American States denouncing the coup, Bush did nothing to reverse it.

Clinton has been far more outspoken in his support of Aristide’s cause. But Lawrence A. Pezzullo, the veteran diplomat who coordinated the Administration’s Haiti policy until he resigned April 22, has become increasingly critical of Aristide.

“He was catapulted into the presidency and formed a mediocre and partisan government,” Pezzullo said. “He didn’t understand the governing process, and the people around him didn’t either. You need a man of tremendous skill to put together a reform program. He couldn’t do that. If you talk to him about programs, he is bereft of any concept of policy.”

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But it misses the point to regard Aristide as a conventional politician.

After years of heaping scorn on politics and politicians from the pulpit, Aristide entered the 1990 election at the last minute and swept to victory on votes of the impoverished masses. It was the first time the poor had been given a fair shot at the ballot box, and they made the most of it.

In office, Aristide tried to pare Haiti’s bloated public payroll, and he cooperated with an International Monetary Fund austerity program that had drawn complaints from leftist political parties. His administration was stifled from the start by political gridlock in Parliament. U.S. supporters admit that he was unable to enact a single piece of legislation during his seven-month tenure.

Pezzullo, who tried without success to pressure Aristide to form an alliance with opposition parliamentarians to broaden his political base, said the ousted president will be unable to govern even if he regains his office.

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“He never had a majority in the Parliament and it is a parliamentary system, not a presidential system,” Pezzullo said in reference to the Haitian constitution, which remains theoretically in force although it is generally ignored by the military government. “What I’m concerned about is the larger political comity that you develop through the major political activists so you have a coalition government, which is the only way you can govern there. He gives no indication of wanting to develop that.”

Burton V. Wides, a Washington lawyer representing Aristide, said the ousted president broke with parliamentarians who ran with him as part of an electoral coalition over matters of “patronage and pork.” He said Aristide intentionally declined to convert his mass support into a political organization.

Since Aristide took up his exile residence in Washington, he has generated support and opposition almost as emotional as the feelings he produced at home.

For instance, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) first encountered Aristide when he traveled to Port-au-Prince to attend the inauguration primarily because of the novelty of a democratically elected president in a country that had known little but dictators.

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“It was one of the most exciting political dramas that I have ever seen,” said Kennedy, whose family knows something about political charisma. “I have seldom seen so many people so united and so excited about a political leader.”

But Helms, the North Carolina Republican who has led opposition to Aristide on Capitol Hill, calls him “a demonstrable killer.”

“This cruel man has made fiery speeches exhorting his followers to use the necklace method, as it is called, to destroy his political enemies in agony,” Helms said in reference to mob execution in which a gasoline-soaked tire is forced over the victim’s head and shoulders and set afire.

There is no doubt that Aristide made inflammatory speeches that easily can be read as advocating execution by necklace. But the State Department’s Human Rights report shows that political killings and rights violations were far lower during Aristide’s tenure than they were under the military dictatorships that preceded and followed it.

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