The Miami Herald
Dec. 13, 2002

Aristide says vast majority of Haitians support him


  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
  his office.

  Aristide pledged to hold elections next year and said that Haitian immigrants who reach Florida are economic, not political, refugees -- a designation that
  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, the levels
  are exaggerated.

  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 have
  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 million. He
  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, relatively
  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
  his resignation.

  The country has been locked in a political stalemate since May 2000, when the Lavalas Party swept parliamentary elections that observers said were
  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 blocks:
  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, and a
  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, which
  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 that
  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 last

  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 the separation
  of powers.

  In the interview in his office, where he sat beneath a portrait of Haitian independence hero Toussaint L'Ouverture, Aristide also talked about Haitian
  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 were fleeing
  political persecution and have asked for asylum, Aristide said the exodus is economic, exacerbated by the international community's blockage of aid to
  the government.

  ''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 said. ``Haitians
  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
  democratic Haiti.''

  Repairing the economy, attracting investment to the island, and improving the education system are important to him as well, but a stable democracy is
  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.''