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A New Aristide Writing Haiti’s Next Chapter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the broken streets of this capital, they don’t call him the Little Priest anymore. Many don’t even call him Titid, the term of endearment Haiti’s poor gave “Little Aristide” when he delivered them from dictatorship in 1990.

Now many Haitians have taken to calling him Tabarre.

That is the name of the booming exurban district that some see as a metaphor for the new Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The neighborhood is home to the former president’s well-endowed and heavily guarded Aristide Foundation for Democracy. It also boasts the only major road his government built, a modern, seven-mile ribbon named for the day in 1994 when 20,000 U.S. troops escorted the ousted leader back to power after three years in exile.

And on 15th of October Boulevard, in the heart of Tabarre, is the sprawling, gated estate where the 44-year-old former Roman Catholic priest--both the most popular and the most controversial figure in Haiti--lives in the shadows of power along with his American wife and their child.

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More than three years and at least $2 billion in foreign aid after the Clinton administration intervened to restore his legitimate rule here, Aristide has gone from president to ex-president to the most likely next president in a transformation that mirrors Haiti’s many continuing political crises.

Two years after Aristide reluctantly draped the sash of power around his elected successor, Rene Preval, critics and independent analysts agree that his power may well exceed that of the man he selected to replace him--a president who, one diplomat recently joked, appears to be the only one of Haiti’s 7 million people who does not want the job.

But critics say it is a different Aristide who is positioning himself for another presidential run and using the country’s current political vacuum to expand his popular base--an Aristide who appears hardened by his years in politics.

“After he came back in 1994, Aristide got the taste of power,” said Gerald Dalvius, an opposition politician who has announced his presidential aspirations for 2000. “Now he only believes in power. Maybe he looked for the money to get the power or maybe to make more money. He needs both of them.”

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Addressing widespread--though unproved--rumors of corruption under Aristide’s rule, his backers liken the money that his party and foundation are spreading around the nation to the remittances of a modern-day Robin Hood at a time when a political stalemate here has frozen most foreign and domestic aid.

What seems clear is that Aristide, even backstage in Haiti’s political dramas, is still scripting the nation’s future.

“He is still the major political player,” said one diplomat here who asked not to be named. “His popularity has eroded somewhat, but his charisma, his personality, his wealth have not. He has access to money that no one else can compete with.”

Just how Aristide acquired that money has become the focus of what his supporters call a concerted campaign to destroy his image and credibility. Opposition politicians assert that he used the power and position of his presidency to amass what amounts to a political war chest for another presidential bid in 2000.

The opposition politicians allege that Aristide and his new political party are already campaigning, doling out money for social programs through his foundation, and even guns through his party, to pave the way for his return to the presidential palace.

Dalvius went so far as to claim that Aristide plotted to kill him--a charge the former president’s aides call absurd. But some high-profile killings here since Aristide’s return in 1994 have become political fodder in the hands of conservatives who have long opposed Aristide here and in the halls of the U.S. Congress, where hard-line Republicans once viewed him as a dangerous Communist.

At Aristide’s foundation, where uniformed and plainclothes security guards toted shotguns and pistols on several recent occasions, the receptionist said the former president had declined requests by The Times for an interview. Aides say he has avoided the media since leaving the presidential palace in February 1996.

‘None of It Is True’

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But Aristide’s advisors, friends and supporters in the streets said the allegations are part of a long-standing disinformation campaign by his enemies to cast an angel as a devil, a former priest as a present-day provocateur.

“I can tell you categorically that none of it is true,” said Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer and Aristide confidant who serves as the Haitian government’s general counsel.

“I’ve known the man for a long time . . . and the one thing that’s sure is, he’s not corrupt,” he said.

As for the political killings, Kurzban bristled and added: “This is a guy who’s very popular. He doesn’t have to kill anybody to be president in the year 2001.”

Not even Aristide’s worst enemies doubt his still-soaring popularity among Haiti’s poor.

In interviews in Port-au-Prince’s still crushingly poor Cite Soleil slum, Aristide’s traditional power base, most people said their lives are worse now than the day Aristide returned: Prices are soaring while wages remain the same; murders continue; drug abuse is on the rise.

But most excused Aristide. He had too little time, they said, to bring real change before the constitution forced him to step down because it prohibits the president from serving consecutive terms.

The former priest, in fact, left office only after failing to extend his term. Aristide argued at the time that he should be allowed to serve the three years of his term that he missed while in exile in Washington after being overthrown in a coup. But members of Aristide’s own political coalition and the U.S. government, which was providing Haiti’s security and much of its budget, persuaded him to leave office.

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Soon after, the Lavalas (Flood) movement that brought Aristide to power in the 1990 elections broke apart. Its political wing, the Lavalas Political Organization, effectively became an opposition party, and in late 1996 Aristide formed his own party, dubbing it the Lavalas Family party.

“That name, family, is symptomatic of the traditional, paternalist politics of Haiti,” said Gerard Pierre-Charles, a former Aristide ally who heads the Lavalas Political Organization and has become one of Aristide’s harshest critics.

In both name and structure, Pierre-Charles said, Aristide’s new party is tearing a page from Haiti’s dark past, from long-reigning dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled as a sometimes brutal, sometimes benevolent father figure.

“In every case, I believe power changes people, but in the case of Aristide more than any other, power aggravated the true personality,” Pierre-Charles said.

The opposition leader then blamed Aristide for the political impasse that has paralyzed Haiti, a crisis that has left the country without a government for 10 months. In turn, President Preval and some independent analysts blamed the stalemate on Pierre-Charles and his party, which has blocked all of Preval’s nominees for prime minister through its parliamentary majority.

Blood Has Been Spilled

Blood already has been spilled in the fray, independent observers said. The worst of it, they said, was in the town of Mirebalais in February, an incident U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan singled out as a worrisome sign that Haiti might be returning to its politically violent past.

The town’s police chief, Ricelin Dormeus, was hacked to death and burned after arresting two members of a new group named Put Order Into Disorder, according to U.N. and Organization of American States officials who investigated the attack. Several of the group’s members have been charged with Dormeus’ slaying.

Disturbingly, the investigating officials said, Aristide’s political party appeared to be indirectly involved in the attack, as it created Put Order Into Disorder last year.

“This group, Put Order Into Disorder, even its name is fascist,” Pierre-Charles asserted. “They have a paramilitary structure with titles and ranks like general and colonel.

“Family Lavalas is importing arms and giving them out. So when we speak of the danger of anti-democratic designs, this is what we’re talking about.”

Kurzban and other defenders flatly denied the former president’s involvement in such bloodshed. But allegations of politically motivated killings have hounded Aristide since soon after he returned to power.

The most contentious was the March 28, 1995, execution-style slaying of attorney Mireille Durocher Bertin and one of her clients. Bertin, who was among Aristide’s most vocal critics, was raked with gunfire while her car was stuck in a Port-au-Prince traffic jam five months after Aristide’s return.

Bertin’s opposition to Aristide, combined with reports that U.S. officials in Haiti had learned of a murder plot against her before her death, spurred congressional hearings in Washington, where conservative Republicans likened the assassination to the thousands of political slayings under Haiti’s earlier military regimes.

Her slaying and several killings of former military officers and other Aristide opponents that followed have yet to be solved. A key suspect, Eddy Arbrouet, was shot to death when a Haitian special forces squad went to arrest him several months ago.

His Foes Cite Violence

Even Aristide’s detractors concede that such political violence is a fraction of what occurred before his return. Yet they cite the violence and tactics such as the formation of Put Order Into Disorder to criticize the former president.

“Aristide even tried to kill me,” asserted Dalvius, who is also a criminal lawyer.

Seated in his small legal office with a 9-millimeter pistol on his hip and a fading campaign sticker from a failed 1995 presidential bid on the wall, Dalvius conceded that he had no proof to back his charge, saying only, “I knew Aristide was behind it because I have people inside his organization.”

Dalvius, who was a military and intelligence officer in Haiti’s former regime before supporting Aristide upon his return, declined to speculate on the source of Aristide’s money.

“That is a mystery to me,” he said. “What we know is that he has millions and millions of dollars, and what he’s doing now is putting that money on the street and buying people. He’s campaigning.”

In denying such allegations, attorney Kurzban attributed them to the fact that “the bourgeoisie and the middle class who were Aristide’s biggest supporters when he came back are to a large extent disillusioned. They’re bitter. They’re upset, and they feel Haiti is worse off than when he came back.”

Accompanying Aristide’s return were pledges of billions of dollars in international aid to rebuild the nation and create investment opportunities for that middle class. With most of the aid frozen and Haiti still lacking the most basic infrastructure, legitimate businesspeople who invested hope in Aristide now feel betrayed.

Inflation is in double digits, driven by drug money and corruption, while wages remain at 1994 levels. Crime targeting the middle class, from petty theft to murder, is on the rise. Insecurity reigns among Haiti’s haves, and few of them seem to share the enthusiasm for Aristide among its have-nots.

Kurzban didn’t deny that Aristide plans to seek the presidency again, but he insisted that Aristide’s efforts to spread money around the country through his foundation “are things Aristide was doing when he was a priest.”

Kurzban, who is the foundation’s treasurer in the United States, said its projects are funded by legitimate donations, not corruption. And many average Haitians confirmed that most of the projects are grass-roots, social-welfare programs aimed at the poorest of the poor.

Recalling the days in the mid-1980s when the priest emerged from his small parish church as a populist counterweight to Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship--before Aristide left the priesthood, under pressure from the church, in 1994--Aristide is now directing his micro-projects at the basic level of human survival.

His foundation funds food programs for the poor, selling heavily subsidized rice, milk, juice and other products at below-market prices for families to eat or resell at a profit. It sells half-price tap-taps--the jitneys that are Haiti’s transport staple--that are notable nationwide because all bear Aristide’s name. And it funds a newspaper called Dignity, which promotes the foundation’s projects and highlights the continuing injustices in Haitian society.

“They are all very good social works,” said one diplomat. “They’re also very good politics.”

But through all the political intrigues, infighting, charges and countercharges, most average Haitians still seem to view the man they now call Tabarre with continuing respect, admiration and, perhaps now more than ever, hope.

“The people still love Aristide,” said Yvan Legerme, who survives on odd jobs. “Most hopes for the future still rest on him coming back in 2001.

“The sense is, if Aristide was stealing, he was stealing for the poor.”


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