February 16, 2004

Aristide no stranger to struggle

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) --He is no stranger to struggle. Jean-Bertrand Aristide
was born into poverty, survived several attempts on his life as a priest espousing revolt
and was ousted in a coup within months of becoming Haiti's first freely elected leader.

Now, facing an uprising that has killed more than 50 people and destabilized
the Caribbean country, the embattled leader refuses to be sidelined a second

"I will leave the palace February 7, 2006," Aristide, 50, insists, referring to his
term's end.

He was born to peasants in the southern town of Port Salut. His father was
lynched when he was toddler, accused of using black magic to commit evil

At age 6, the young and bright Aristide was taken in by Roman Catholic priests
of the Salesian Order. They educated him and sent him to the Dominican
Republic, Canada and Israel, where he studied theology and psychology.

Along the way, he learned French, Latin, English, German, Spanish and
Hebrew but is most eloquent in the native Creole that he used to exort Haitians
to rise against the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

Two years after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled to France in 1986, the Salesians
disowned Aristide for allegedly fomenting revolution through his fiery church
sermons aimed at empowering Haiti's poor masses. At the time, the hierarchy
of the Catholic Church was at odds with young priests in Latin America who
preached that violence to overthrow dictators was justified.

Students told the Salesians that Aristide had asked them to lay their machetes
on the altar and to name their enemies, according to the Rev. Edward
Cappelletti, who was in charge of the mission office in New Rochelle, New
York, which helped the mission in Haiti.

"As a policy we don't get involved in politics," Cappelletti, 83, said in a
telephone interview. "He was advocating violence and that's where we had to
draw the line."

Despite opposition from the army, business leaders, landowners and the United
States, Aristide became Haiti's first freely elected leader in 1990 only to be
ousted eight months later.

"He gives the impression of being strong. In fact, he is a coward," said Evans
Paul, who directed Aristide's election campaign but turned on his former friend
when he was cut out of top government positions. "He cannot help being

In exile in the United States, Aristide successfully campaigned for U.N.
sanctions and a military intervention, and defended himself against CIA claims
that he was a psychopath unfit to rule Haiti.

Aristide followers knew that the diminutive priest who wears oversize
spectacles suffered from depression, and loved him the more for that frailty.

President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 troops to restore him in 1994 but insisted he
respect a constitutional term limit and step down in 1995.

Aristide handpicked his successor, Rene Preval, but was considered the power
behind the scenes until he won a second term in 2000, at presidential elections
marred by a low turnout and an opposition boycott.

International donors suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid after his
Lavalas Family party -- whose emblem is a fighting cock -- swept flawed
legislative elections.

Opposition parties refuse to participate in new elections unless Aristide steps
down, and the fighters who began a bloody revolt on February 5 say they will
not lay down their arms until he is ousted.

Human rights groups accuse him of using police and armed militants to stifle
dissent. Two journalists critical of Aristide have been assassinated. Scores have
been wounded or killed during anti-government demonstrations.

The revolt in northern Haiti is being led by thugs who say Aristide armed them
to terrorize his opponents in Gonaives -- a charge the president denies.

Aristide is no stranger to bloodshed.

He was the target of three assassination attempts, the worst in 1988 when
army-backed thugs stormed his Saint Jean Bosco church during Mass and shot
and hacked to death 12 parishioners.

He has also been criticized for endorsing "necklacing," a gruesome method of
execution where gasoline-soaked tires are thrown over a person's neck and set
ablaze. Just Wednesday, former Aristide strongmen necklaced a man in
Gonaives, the heart of the current unrest and cradle of Haiti's independence
200 years ago.

"The burning tire, what a beautiful tool! ... It smells good. And wherever you
go, you want to smell it," Aristide said Sept. 27, 1991.

But the man who once fired the hearts of Haitians to pursue freedom himself is
being called a dictator.

Haitian author and former friend, Laennec Hurbon once called Aristide the
"incarnation of a collective dream." He has since said he has had a "painful

Although Aristide's hold on power appears to be weakening, he has no clear

The Democratic Coalition wants a collective government. One leader is a
businessman barred from the presidency because of his dual nationality.
Another led a failed coup. In a free election, none are likely to garner more
votes than Aristide could.

"Aristide knows the misery of the people," said former Sen. Clones Lans. "He
has always been faithful to the people and that is why the people remain faithful
to him ... He is the symbol of hope for Haiti and Haitians."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.