Aristide's Populist Appeal Dwindles in Haiti

Times Staff Writer

No trace of extraordinary vision appears on the face of the bespectacled 13-year-old in the back row of a 1966 class picture from the Salesian Seminary in Cap Haitien.

Nor was the demure young priest seen as particularly ambitious as he churned out political leaflets two decades later in the underground movement to oust dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Only after Duvalier was driven into exile in 1986 and some hope for democracy appeared on the horizon did Haitians see the political agenda in the cleric's moving oration as he stirred a nation of have-nots to choose him as their first democratically elected leader.

No one seems to know whether President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever intended to lead his people out of the abject poverty that once consumed his own life. The more charitable among his detractors impute initial good intentions but say the allure of wealth and power led him astray somewhere between the pulpit and the presidential palace.

In city slums, in the famished countryside, among the supporters of democracy who cheered his rise to power, it is now difficult to find even a flicker of the hope once invested in this enigmatic figure.

Aristide has amassed a legacy that can best be termed a chronicle of dashed expectations. A former Roman Catholic priest turned husband, father and autocrat, he has presided over the decline of Haiti from a poor nation of 8 million, repressed for three decades under Duvalier and his father -- Francois, known as "Papa Doc" -- to an even poorer wreck of a nation gripped by hunger, hopelessness, disease and gang warfare.

More than half the population is illiterate. Unemployment afflicts 70% of the work force. Haiti's rate of HIV and AIDS is the world's highest outside sub-Saharan Africa. Human rights groups accuse the 50-year-old Aristide of resorting to violence to stay in power, and former constituents say he has pocketed his share of billions in drug money for having his security forces look the other way.

Last month, Transparency International, the Berlin-based government watchdog agency, rated Haiti the third-most-corrupt country in the world, outdone on the 133-nation list only by Bangladesh and Nigeria.

"The problem is that the Haitian people have this belief in a messiah -- someone who will come along and solve all our problems," said Jean-Picard Byron, head of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations. "What occurred was a mirror effect. The people wanted a messiah, and Aristide started seeing that image in his reflection."

In a bow to populist sentiment, Aristide elevated the Creole language from its underclass status and legalized the voodoo religion practiced by 80% of Haitians. But those moves have been eclipsed by actions that have alienated international lenders, driven away foreign investment and brought the country to the brink of a governance crisis because of a failure to organize free and fair elections.

The international community's withholding of crucial loans and aid to Haiti has not compelled Aristide's government to fulfill any of the conditions set by the Organization of American States a year ago to guarantee political opponents a safe environment for campaigning. Elections that were to be held by the end of this year are at least four months away, even by the optimistic calculations of Aristide's Lavalas Family party.

Early this month, the new U.S. ambassador here, James Foley, broke Washington's silence on the political impasse. "Security has much deteriorated in recent weeks," he said, and the Aristide government was failing to live up to its commitments.

The president's shrinking coterie of supporters accuse foreign critics of defecting to the side of the opposition.

At the presidential palace, a white, colonial-style compound in the only part of the capital with verdant parks and roads nearly free of potholes, Aristide's chief of staff casts opponents' accusations as evidence that they fear failure if they take part in elections.

"Some people here are afraid of the idea of one man, one vote," Jean-Claude Desgranges said. "They don't have any connection with the countryside, and it would be difficult for them to be able to win the election."

How a preacher from the slums who galvanized a dispirited nation upon his landslide electoral victory 13 years ago could have so failed to raise living standards in the hemisphere's poorest nation is a question asked widely -- and usually answered with the same disdainful conclusion.

"It's part of the psychology of people from the lower echelons of society," said Father Joseph Simon, who taught Aristide for three years at the seminary in Cap Haitien. "Once they go up in the world, they forget where they came from."

The priest, who runs a shelter for street kids in the capital, remembers a bright student who was both a follower and a leader, surrounding himself with beholden peers and, memorably, taking in a pet rooster.

Micha Gaillard, a key figure in the Democratic Convergence group that is calling for Aristide to step down, recalled the president in his early 30s as an impassioned activist in the struggle against Duvalier. Like most of the president's current opponents, Gaillard worked tirelessly for Aristide's return after a September 1991 coup forced him into exile seven months after he took office.

"I would do the same again, because it was the right thing to do," Gaillard said of his role in Aristide's return to power on the back of a 1994 U.S. military intervention. "But from experience, now I can see we should have pressed for certain assurances that he would come back and build democratic institutions."

With hindsight and sadness, he described Aristide's failure as preordained. "He was always very intelligent, but he was held back by the mentality of a street kid. That's why he couldn't elevate himself, why he had no vision."

Unimposing, soft-spoken and seemingly sincere when hearing out his critics, the increasingly reclusive Aristide is described by those who have encountered him in recent weeks as fearful of corrupt allies and the thuggish gangs they empowered to stifle opposition.

One U.S. human rights envoy who met recently with Aristide described him as fearing for his life and those of his wife and children since the September killing of gang leader Amiot Metayer. A longtime government muscleman who broke up anti-regime rallies in the troubled coastal city of Gonaives, Metayer was reputedly blackmailing the administration. His execution-style slaying is attributed to government forces.

The thugs terrorizing demonstrations and independent radio stations do so with impunity and travel in state-registered trucks, said Guy Delva, head of the Haitian Journalists Assn.

One of scores of reporters and editors attacked by the club-wielding chimeres -- from French for "monsters" -- Delva blames Aristide's government for the orchestrated suppression of critics. With neither the police nor the judiciary willing to take on the terror squads, Haitians can only conclude that they operate with government sanction, he argued.

Aides to Aristide had implied that the president would be available for an interview with The Times in October, but in the end they said he wouldn't be free until at least December. His public appearances lately have been confined to stage-managed events and speeches, mostly geared to the upcoming observances of Haiti's bicentennial of independence on Jan 1.

In the political vacuum that exists in Haiti, opponents speculate that Aristide is plotting to position a successor, because he is constitutionally prohibited from serving a third term when his mandate expires in February 2005. They point out the growing visibility of two figures: Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Aristide's wife of seven years, Mildred Trouillot.

The Haitian American lawyer who has borne the former priest two daughters, 4-year-old Christine and 2-year-old Michaelle, has lately taken the stage to represent Haiti in international forums.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, a human rights activist who in 1994 hailed Aristide's reinstatement, says the president has become obsessed with retaining power.

Bajeux accuses the government of complicity in the region's drug trade, contending that as much as 15% of the $60 billion worth of cocaine reaching the U.S. each year is handled by Haitian traffickers with paid accomplices in the administration. Unless an ally follows him in office, Bajeux suggested, Aristide could face prosecution.

Like other intellectuals who once looked to Aristide as the man who was capable of leading the poor in a national revitalization, Bajeux bitterly views the president as a traitor to the hope he once engendered.

"I don't see how Aristide can recover from what is happening in Gonaives," he said, pointing to rising national outrage over reprisals by security forces, including the Oct. 27 burning of protesters' houses in which a 15-day-old baby was among the dead.

"The international community is saying that if we don't have elections by the end of the year, we'll have an institutional void," Bajeux said. "But we've been in that situation for years."

Whether Aristide's mass appeal has survived the economic and social disaster of his era is deeply in question. Many impoverished Haitians, when asked about their political preferences, now shrug with disinterest.

The rural poor remain unlikely to defect to the opposition, whose leaders come mostly from the elite. But they also no longer express the blind devotion to the president who came from among them.

"He definitely gave us hope at the beginning, but now we feel like he has deceived us," said Lafortune Theonin, a farmer who has lived high in the La Selle mountains above Port-au-Prince for decades.

"Life is much harder now for us. He's the only one whose life got better. "

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