The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 29, 2004

Aristide: A hope reshaped

Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- He called his movement Lavalas, Creole for the torrential floods that sweep away all before them.

So, too, Jean-Bertrand Aristide pledged to wash away nearly 200 years of oppression and let democracy take root in Haiti. The former Catholic priest carried the hopes of a nation.

Yet today, 14 years after he was first elected president, one-time supporters call him a dictator and say Aristide -- like other Haitian leaders before him -- has used violence and intimidation to maintain power.

His early signs of an authoritarian bent were dismissed by euphoric supporters, said Lilian Pierre Paul, a journalist and former long-time friend. ``I wonder if I ever really knew him.''

The tide has now turned against him. The president -- cornered by gunmen threatening to overthrow him, opposition politicians and civil groups pressing him to resign, and the United States and France urging him to consider it -- fled the country Sunday morning.

Armed rebels had driven government forces from northern and central Haiti, leaving some 90 dead and unleashing an end-of-regime-like panic in Port-au-Prince as desperate pro-Aristide gunmen killed and robbed, and civilians looted everything from food to toilets.


To some, Aristide's message of hope turned to boding ill

Born to a poor peasant family, Aristide studied as a child under the Salesian Brothers and later decided to become a priest. Widely regarded as extremely bright, he studied theology and psychology, mastered Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew and English, as well as Creole and French.

Ordained in 1983, he joined the Ti Legliz, or ''Little Church,'' a group of progressive clerics who criticized the military dictatorships that followed nearly three decades of brutal Duvalier family rule ended in 1986.

But it was his sermons -- broadcast live on the radio so they could reach Haiti's largely illiterate masses -- that made him as a hero to most Haitians.

In fiery Creole, the diminutive priest criticized army officials by name, called capitalism a ''mortal sin'' and took aim at the Haitian elite, even the church. He urged the poor in his parish of St. Jean-Bosco, in the shantytown of La Saline, to do the holy work of fighting against repressive regimes.

Aristide escaped at least three assassination attempts during those days, including one at St. Jean-Bosco where dozens of people were killed, but his stature among the poor in the hemisphere's poorest nation only grew. The church hierarchy didnt like his politics. They accused him of inciting violence and class struggle and expelled him from the Salesian order in 1988.

But two years later, and still wildly popular, Aristide won Haitis first democratic presidential election at the head of the Lavalas party. He took the helm of a nation with a yawning divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and no tradition of democracy.

He was in office only seven months when a military coup toppled him. But in that short time, some in his inner circle saw troubling signs. Instead of building a government of national unity, he pushed aside some of the very people who helped him get elected. He continued to appeal more to the masses than the experts who could help him rule efficiently.

And in an often-quoted speech, he praised the ''sweet smell'' of burning tires -- a reference to necklacing, a brutal form of murder in which tires are used to bind the victims and set aflame. That is how some of his followers killed supporters of the Duvalier and military dictatorships.

These comments and others were ''signs of authoritarian rule,'' said Pierre Paul, the journalist who has known Aristide since before he joined the priesthood. But his supporters looked away, she said.

''At the beginning, we were very tolerant. We didnt make a big deal out of it,'' she said. Now the question revolves like a carousel in her mind and those of others who once supported him. ``I am doubting myself.''


An anxious leader returns to power with new ideas

Meanwhile, as the military terrorized the population in brutal attacks estimated to have left more than 5,000 dead, the exiled Aristide holed up in a Washington apartment building with his backers.

Shuttled between meetings with the Washington elite, he began to change, shed his leftist rhetoric, and embrace economic policies that made Washington comfortable. There, he also met his future wife, a Haitian-American lawyer named Mildred Trouillot.

In 1994, President Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to restore Aristide to power -- and when the bespectacled leader they affectionately called Titid, arrived, the celebrations lasted into the night.

Within a year, he had abolished the corrupt and brutal Haitian military, which he claims to this day is his greatest accomplishment. But he also fought to keep the National Police under 6,000 agents, apparently afraid of another coup. It was a ridiculously weak force in a nation of 8 million people, compared to New York City's 62,000-member force.

After trying insistently to extend his term by the period he had been exiled, Aristide ceded power in 1996, and former Prime Minister René Preval took the presidential sash. Most Haitians and foreign experts, however, believed that Aristide was in control behind the scenes.

But near the end of Prevals term in 2000, Aristide faced events and challenges that would dog him in the years to come.


Corruption suspicions open new 'power politics' chapter

On April 4, a lone gunman killed Jean Dominique, Haitis most prominent and popular journalist. Dominique had fought the Duvaliers and was considered a Lavalas loyalist. But he had begun to air the partys dirty laundry on his daily radio program.

''For most people, it was obvious where the crime was coming from,'' said Gary Victor, an author who once worked in the Ministry of Culture under Aristide. ``Everybody felt this crime had been somehow orchestrated by the government.''

The murder investigation went nowhere, and Aristide was accused of stifling it, especially when legislators refused to strip the immunity of Lavalas Sen. Danny Toussaint, wanted for questioning. No one has ever been charged in the killing.

''It was a nationwide shock. Everybody felt it was a turning point'' in Aristide's trajectory, Victor recalled.

A month later, voters went to the polls for legislative elections -- the root of todays political crisis.

Aristides Lavalas Family party clearly dominated the balloting, but foreign election observers questioned the way the votes were tabulated in eight Senate races, which avoided possible run-offs and drew scrutiny to Lavalas candidates. The Organization of American States complained, but the government refused to budge.

In the aftermath, Haitis opposition parties, small groups with very little popular support and widely divergent views, joined forces. They dug in, refused to participate in the Nov. 29 presidential elections, and once Aristide was reelected with 92 percent of the votes cast, they demanded he resign.

As a result, the United States cut off aid to the government while international aid agencies froze nearly $500 million in loans.

Alex Dupuy, a Haiti expert at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn., says the elections were a convenient excuse to cut off aid to a leader that Washington, and especially the Bush administration, never cared for. Though also critical of Aristide, Dupuy said the consequences far outweighed their significance.


Revenge tactics, resentment helped the opposition grow

''It was a sort of molehill made into a mountain,'' Dupuy said. ``The issue here has nothing to do with fraudulent elections. It has to do with power politics, and thats whats been unfolding in Haiti ever since.''

Aristide now played the martyr, complaining that forces were constantly plotting to undermine him: Washington for cutting off funds as the national currency slid and Haitians grew poorer, and the weak opposition who made their support appear broader by using the airwaves to denounce him.

But his own supporters helped sully his name.

A new word took root in the daily parlance: chimres, Creole for a mythical dragon and gangs loyal to Aristide that intimidated and attacked his critics. They were little different from the Ton Ton Macoutes of Duvalier's times and Attaches of the military junta that toppled Aristide.

But they were invited to the National Palace when he was inaugurated for his second term on Dec. 3, 2001.

In fall 2001, after the president gave a speech announcing a ''zero tolerance'' policy on troublemakers, the chimres took it as an order to strike. In the southwest city of Petit-Goave, the mayor made a list of people to target, which included radio journalist Brignol Lindor. Days later, Lindor was hacked to death with machetes.

Then, on the night of Dec. 17, 2001, about 32 gunmen briefly attacked the National Palace in what the government called a coup attempt. Chimres went on a rampage of revenge against opposition members, burning their headquarters and houses across the country. At least 10 people were killed.

The president said the attacks mastermind was Guy Philippe, a former police chief in exile in the Dominican Republic who this year emerged as one of the men behind an uprising.

Critics, though, said Aristide undermined his legitimacy by using the attack as a pretext to go after his opponents. The government was later forced to pay reparations to opposition parties.

And on the streets, word of corruption scandals grew. Haitians began to complain about government officials driving around in a fleet of new SUVs while the people scraped for a meal. Signs appeared at open-air markets that said ''Aristide, Thief.'' In the countryside, what once seemed unimaginable happened: shouts of ''Aba Titid,'' or ``Down with Aristide.''


Violence begets chaos when 'chimres' turn the tables

The Bush administration added pressure, canceling the visas of high-level officials allegedly helping drug traffickers to transship Colombian cocaine to U.S. shores.

Over time, the opposition expanded. Though still spearheaded by the business elite, what became known as the Group of 184 consisted of peasant groups, unions and artists. They organized protests, and at one in December 2003, a gang of chimres attacked a group of students inside the university and ended up breaking both of the university directors legs.

In a country where only a tiny minority can attend school, the attack on had a powerful impact.

''People could still tolerate him after he stole money, after the Dominique assassination,'' Gary Victor recalled. ``But after the attack on the students, nobody who could think, read or write could be with him anymore.''

On Jan. 1, Haiti, the worlds first free black republic, commemorated it 200th anniversary of independence in a ceremony overshadowed by tension and street clashes.

It would not be long before chimres in the central town of Gonaives, angered by the assassination of one of their leaders, would revolt against Aristide on Feb. 5, seize the town and spark the uprising.

The little sense of order left in Haiti had begun to unravel. And Aristide, once the hope of Haiti, was reduced to clinging to power while his chimres killed and maimed in the capital.