U.S. combat troops took up sniper positions atop tombs Wednesday to guard President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the former exile ventured out for a rare public visit--kneeling at a cemetery and two churches to pray for Haitian priests, politicians and thousands of others who died for him and his democratic cause under three years of military rule.
Buglers played taps as Aristide touched foreheads with fellow priests, hugged an orphan he once adopted and waved to adoring throngs during three brief appearances before being whisked back to the Presidential Palace by scores of U.S. Army escorts in battle gear.
The Roman Catholic priest-turned-politician then ended the final day of a marathon holiday festival for the dead with a dinner at his suburban villa for President Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake. U.S. officials said Lake's two-day visit here is aimed partly at urging Aristide to speed up efforts to rebuild the nation's democratic institutions.
Lake also visited U.S. Army troops in the northern town of Cap Haitien and a Special Forces unit in the rural town of Grande Riviere du Nord, to help shore up military morale in the prolonged mission dubbed Uphold Democracy. Today Lake is due to meet Haitian business, religious and political leaders, among them Smarck Michel, Aristide's nominee for prime minister whose appointment has been before the nation's plodding Parliament for more than a week.
Senior U.S. officials said Lake plans to tell Haitian leaders of the Clinton Administration's concerns about delays in crucial parliamentary and local elections. Originally scheduled for December, voting for more than 2,000 national and local offices may not take place until February or March, and the Administration has vowed to keep the U.S. intervention force in Haiti until after those elections are held.
But U.S. officials in Haiti sought to temper any appearance of urgency in Lake's visit, stressing that Aristide has won high marks for his earnest, though time-consuming, process of institution-building and neutralizing Haiti's armed and angry political right.
"What appears to be a slow process is also a careful process," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager. "President Aristide is reaching out to a lot of people. He's working the phones, and talking to many former enemies. It's better than rushing into something."
Clearly, Aristide did reach out on Wednesday, and seemingly in many directions at once.
With U.S. Army snipers posted on rooftops surrounding the capital's Sacre Coeur Church, Aristide stood at attention with eyes shut tight for half a minute. Then he knelt and touched the base of a towering gray cross, near the spot where his campaign financier and Haiti's former justice minister were gunned down in separate incidents by military agents last year.
He laid a wreath of yellow zinnias dedicated to the memory of the two. Antoine Izmery had helped finance Aristide's successful 1990 run for the presidency. He was raked with gunfire just outside Sacre Coeur's front gate following a protest Mass a year ago. Justice Minister Guy Malary was executed soon after in similar gangland fashion as he drove past the church en route to his office.
Aristide hugged the church's vicar, the Rev. Launay Saturne, who described Aristide's brief visit as "an expression of solidarity for those who fought for him."
As American combat officers barked orders and shooed adoring Haitians from surrounding streets, Aristide barely managed to stop on his way out to embrace Waldeck Janvier, an orphan he adopted nearly 20 years before and raised.
Before his final appearance at Port-au-Prince's main cemetery, where U.S. military escorts briefly broke up Wednesday's traditional voodoo party for the dead, Aristide paid a solemn visit to the Montfortain Fathers compound, which includes the orphanage where Janvier grew up.
There, Aristide knelt and touched the blue-tiled tomb of Father Jean-Marie Vincent, a priest who once saved Aristide from machete-wielding assassins.
On Aug. 28, Vincent was gunned down just outside the compound. His murder fueled the Administration's decision to send 20,000 troops to restore Aristide in Haiti.
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