Aristide Vows to Seek Social Peace
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Nov. 27 –– Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on the verge
of another term as Haiti's president, sent a conciliatory message to fearful
people and wary international patrons today, asking them to help him forge a social peace in this impoverished country over his next five years in office.
"I will work to bring peace to everyone--whatever economic level--as long as you are Haitian," he said in a news conference.
The former Roman Catholic priest, whom U.S. troops restored to power
six years ago after he had been toppled by a military coup d'etat, did
not directly address
Sunday's contested elections, which were boycotted by opposition parties and foreign observer missions. The results will not be released until later this week,
although officials and other analysts agree they will likely show a resounding victory for Aristide and his party's Senate candidates.
Aristide, who already controls a dominant majority in the parliament,
invited international lending agencies that have bottled up millions of
dollars in foreign aid to
begin negotiations on restoring the flow. But he signaled that those discussions, if they are held, will likely take place on Haiti's terms.
"We have problems which will be addressed by Haitians," Aristide said. "We have to protect our dignity."
Aristide's message came hours after several hundred followers of his
Lavalas Family party gathered in front of the U.S. consulate and other
foreign missions to
demand international recognition for the vote. The demonstration, encouraged by pro-Lavalas radio stations, was far smaller than what the party had mustered in
support of previous elections.
The Lavalas-controlled Provisional Electoral Council estimated that
60.5 percent of eligible voters turned out despite opposition calls for
a boycott. But Aristide's
rivals said the actual figure could be in the single digits. The dueling estimates were more than just a test of the putative president's popularity. The turnout also could
determine whether foreign governments and international organizations accept the results; the State Department said it believes few Haitians participated.
"Low voter turnout and pre-election violence are strong indicators of
the need for reconciliation among all sectors of Haitian society," said
Philip T. Reeker, a State
But even as Aristide reached out to his political rivals, opposition
parties pledged to continue fighting his apparent victory through demonstrations
disobedience, invoking the recent post-election events in Peru and Yugoslavia as a model for what they hope to accomplish. "The road may be a long one," said
Victor Benoit, leader of Konakom, a prominent opposition party that is planning demonstrations, hunger strikes and media campaigns to condemn the vote. "But we
are sure that in the end the road we will take will show results."
The fallout, although peaceful today, underscored Aristide's polarizing
quality. He rose from the slums to become the first freely elected president
in Haiti's 200-year
history a decade ago, defying several attempts on his life to outline a revolutionary message for the hemisphere's poorest nation. His Lavalas movement took its name
from the Creole word for cleansing torrent. Fearing the flood, Haiti's wealthy elite supported a military coup seven months into his first administration.
Restored to the presidency by U.S. troops in September 1994, Aristide
reluctantly turned over power to his prime minister, Rene Preval, in 1996
constitutional changes to allow him to serve a second consecutive term. Since then he has remained largely out of sight, although many analysts say he has been the
power behind the Preval administration and he has received most of the credit for its minor successes.
His supporters say Aristide's mesmeric hold over the poor has grown
during Preval's presidency, despite few public appearances. The phenomenon
is rooted in
Haiti's long history of dictatorships, most recently that of the Duvalier family, and the fact that in a country where 60 percent of the population cannot read, emotion is
an important political currency.
Aristide, 47, seemed to acknowledge as much today, explaining his single
campaign appearance by saying, "I didn't need to be carried on anyone's
year because I have been among them for so long."
But the emotional response is just as strong among the wealthy, who
say Aristide is coming to dominate Haitian public life just as the dictators
he once fought against.
This time, though, they say, the emerging dictator has promoted upsetting Haitian society to benefit the poor majority. Tony Raphel, who owns an appliance store,
said he worries about Aristide's unchecked authority.
"He is the only one; there is no one else," said Raphel, who did not vote Sunday. "He has everything."
In May, Lavalas claimed victory in 10 Senate races that foreign observers
said should have been decided in runoff contests, refusing international
calls for reform
leading up to Sunday's balloting and provoking foreign observers to stay away. Political opponents also charge that Lavalas gangs and municipal officials have
dispersed rival political rallies, at times using a nominally independent police force or gangs operating with impunity.
"He doesn't believe in institutions, but in his ability to destroy and
replace them with his party," Benoit said. "He will begin to physically
destroy property, especially
those that don't belong to his friends."