Aristide says vast majority of Haitians support him
BY JIM DEFEDE AND MARIKA LYNCH
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Appearing calm and confident, Haitian President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Thursday dismissed the notion his government
is in trouble
or that he has lost the support of his people.
''Today, I am here at the palace, it is not a gift. The vast
majority of the people are with me,'' Aristide said during a wide-ranging,
90-minute interview in
Aristide pledged to hold elections next year and said that Haitian
immigrants who reach Florida are economic, not political, refugees -- a
would all but close the door on the possibility of winning political asylum.
He saved his harshest criticism for the United States and the
international community for blocking aid for his government's projects
more than two years
ago. He argued that international leaders, and not his government, are responsible for the turmoil in his nation.
''In 1990, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Twelve years later, Haiti is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere
not because of what we did, but because of what those [members of the international community did] -- imposing an economic sanction against us as a
people,'' Aristide said. ``They have the responsibility.''
Recently, Haiti has faced almost daily protests, where opponents demand Aristide's resignation and alleged supporters become violent in his name.
Aristide acknowledges there is political violence in his country
-- among those who support him and those who don't. Nevertheless, he said,
He also questioned why human rights groups and the media often
blame his Lavalas Party for the violence. To make his point, he mentioned
an attack on
a police station Tuesday night, where four people were killed in an apparent attempt to free an opposition member arrested for murdering a Lavalas
As is often the case in Haiti, Aristide says things are not always
as they seem. In recent weeks, political gangs who say they are pro-government
taken to the streets, even beating anti-government protesters with whips on Dec. 3 to preempt a march in downtown Port-au-Prince.
While opponents see the groups as Aristide's ''enforcers,'' the president said it is unclear who is behind them.
''It is not easy to distinguish which one is really supporting us when they are causing violence,'' Aristide said.
Despite their declarations, some may commit violence to embarrass the government and try to turn people against him, Aristide said.
To Aristide, the country's political and economic crises are
intertwined: The international community denies aid, people grow desperate,
and there are
outbursts in the streets.
In fact, Aristide said, it is surprising Haiti isn't more unstable,
given the poverty and 70 percent unemployment rate in the nation of eight
credited himself with keeping the country together.
''I would want to see who could sit here in this office and spend
the past two years without economic assistance and keep the country intact,
peaceful and intact,'' Aristide said. ``Tell me, if in Detroit, you could have such a peaceful environment when there is a blackout. Tell me, if in Haiti, where
you have months of blackouts, not just hours, you can still have a peaceful environment.''
Haiti's democracy is young and experiencing growing pains, he
said. The country is trying to break the addictive cycle of coups that
had gripped the
nation for almost 200 years. He said it would take time to develop strong democratic institutions.
Aristide is facing the biggest test to his leadership since the
September 1991 coup that forced him into exile in the United States. A
once small, elite
opposition has grown, and recently students, business leaders and human rights groups have condemned the government, and some have demanded
The country has been locked in a political stalemate since May
2000, when the Lavalas Party swept parliamentary elections that observers
flawed. Afterward, the international community blocked aid, including more than $150 million in loans for roads and health projects.
This summer, the Organization of American States released that
aid, but the government still hasn't received the money. Among the stumbling
the country still owes money on other loans.
Critics, however, said Haiti's economic problems are more fundamental, and go beyond the lack of aid.
Financial mismanagement, the recent collapse of local cooperatives,
or investment groups that went broke after devolving into a pyramid scheme,
rumor-fueled banking crisis that sent millions of dollars out of the country also have deepened the economic crisis.
Aristide's opponents and the international community say Aristide also is slow to impose reforms.
Earlier in the week, the OAS chastised the Haitian government
for not doing enough to provide a secure environment for legislative elections,
Aristide wants to hold next year.
Opposition leaders say they won't participate until the government
can ensure a safe environment in which to campaign and vote. Aristide rejects
notion. If an election can happen in civil-war torn Colombia, he said, it can happen in Haiti today.
The opposition is afraid of contesting elections and is stalling, Aristide said.
''They fear elections. They prefer to choose violence sometimes,'' he said, adding that elections will take place in the first six months of next year.
The OAS also criticized the Haitian government for not arresting
people implicated in the burning of opposition members' homes and headquarters
Aristide said he has called for their arrests, but the judiciary is independent.
''Our judicial system is corrupted, our police [department] is
young,'' Aristide said, adding he can't get involved because he would violate
In the interview in his office, where he sat beneath a portrait
of Haitian independence hero Toussaint L'Ouverture, Aristide also talked
immigration to the United States.
Video footage of more than 200 Haitians scrambling to the shore
off Key Biscayne in October saddened him, he said. Though some said they
political persecution and have asked for asylum, Aristide said the exodus is economic, exacerbated by the international community's blockage of aid to
''It is clear in my mind that the people left for economic reasons.
Haitians are proud, willing to stay in Haiti and work in Haiti,'' Aristide
enjoy working. When you see someone leaving the country . . it is because they are suffering so much.''
The Haitian coast guard, he said, has orders to stop boats leaving the country.
Aristide puts the onus on the United States to strengthen protection.
Despite the seriousness of the issues he is confronting, Aristide
was in remarkably good spirits during the interview, laughing and joking
at times, and
making it clear he enjoys being president.
Asked about his plans for the remainder of his term, Aristide
said: ``My answer may surprise you. What I am looking forward for is a
peaceful Haiti, a
Repairing the economy, attracting investment to the island, and
improving the education system are important to him as well, but a stable
the first priority.
``For the coming three years I will continue to try my best to
try and protect that peaceful and democratic environment because I know
once we have
that, the rest will come.''