February 5, 2001

Haiti's Aristide faces uphill struggle

                  PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- Jean-Bertrand Aristide, champion of
                  Haiti's poor, is poised to return on Wednesday to the presidency he held five
                  years ago but faces an uphill battle to remedy a ruined economy and regain the
                  support of the United States and other international allies.

                  Since Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, left office in 1996, the
                  government of the poorest nation in the Americas has been crippled by political
                  infighting, a paralysis that irked previously friendly nations and led them to freeze
                  $500 million in desperately needed aid.

                  "He's under tremendous pressure from the international community to reach a
                  compromise," said ex-Prime Minister Marc Bazin, who lost to Aristide in 1990
                  elections and now leads the opposition party Movement to Install Democracy.
                  "And he faces resistance from his own camp about the whole compromise. He's
                  caught between a rock and a hard place."

                  Aristide rose to power in a popular grass-roots movement but was toppled by a
                  military coup seven months into his term in 1991 and went into exile. A U.S.-led
                  invasion restored the former slum priest to power three years later.

                  A constitutional mandate prevented Aristide from running for a consecutive term
                  and he passed the mantle to his protege, Rene Preval, in 1996.

                  Cold shoulder

                  Haiti turned a cold shoulder to the world community last year when authorities
                  refused to recount allegedly tainted results from legislative and local elections
                  held in May. The poll yielded an overwhelming majority in parliament for
                  Aristide's ruling party, Lavalas Family.

                  The election irregularities, along with Preval's 1999 dismissal of parliament,
                  prompted the international community to suspend some $500 million in foreign
                  aid earmarked for the Caribbean nation of 7.8 million.

                  The United States, which did not send aid or observers to the November
                  presidential election, said it would send aid money only to non-governmental and
                  private organizations.

                  The presidential election was boycotted by the opposition and marred by
                  sporadic killings and violence in the weeks before. Aristide won with 92 percent
                  of the vote then agreed in a letter to then-U.S. President Bill Clinton that he
                  would implement a broad range of reforms, including a reexamination of the May
                  election results.

                  Last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed the Bush administration's
                  support for Aristide's cooperation.

                  Aristide took a step toward mending political fences at the weekend, meeting for
                  the first time in years with opposition leaders who had vowed to set up an
                  "alternative" government to Aristide's and to organize new elections.

                  Meeting at Vatican Embassy

                  Although the meeting, held at the Vatican Embassy, apparently produced no
                  concrete results, analysts said it signaled that the two sides were serious about
                  resolving Haiti's long political crisis. They were scheduled to meet again on

                  Still, the United States -- which has always regarded Aristide with some
                  suspicion because of his leftist leanings -- and others are wary of his ability to
                  carry out his promises.

                  "He needs to get the international community to finance his economic plan," said
                  Kesner Pharel, president of Group Croissance, an economic consulting firm.
                  "Not only do they need to convince the IMF to finance the plan, but they also
                  have to find ways to attract foreign investment."

                  Private foreign investment, deterred by rampant corruption, violence and political
                  instability, dropped to practically nil after the United States and United Nations
                  imposed embargoes following the coup. It has yet to rebound.

                  Foreign investment could help jump-start Haiti's sinking economy. Almost 80
                  percent of the population lives in poverty and the minimum wage is just over $2
                  a day.

                  Informal economy

                  An informal economy where street-side vendors sell snacks and cigarettes,
                  coupled with a booming drug trade, has helped keep the country afloat.

                  "We Haitian people want to see the country move forward," said Aristide Evans,
                  27, a local resident sitting in the recently renovated Champs de Mars plaza
                  downtown in front of the National Palace. "Not always breaking down, not
                  always breaking down."

                  Haitians closely followed the U.S. presidential elections, eager to see how U.S.
                  foreign policy would treat their country for the next four years.

                  James Morrell, research director for the think tank Center for International
                  Policy in Washington, holds that the Bush administration will not differ from its

                  "They will continue the basic stance of the Clinton administration," Morrell said.
                  "They will probably send the ambassador to the inauguration but they will still be
                  pressing Aristide in the points raised in the letter."

                      Copyright 2001 Reuters.