Originally: Twenty years later, Catholic Church echoes pope’s plea for change in Haiti – suggests Aristide resign

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Twenty years on, Pope John Paul II’s dramatic call for change in Haiti still reverberates.

Then, it tolled the knell for Haiti’s 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

Today, the Catholic Church’s plea for change suggests that Haiti’s first freely elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, resign.

On Sunday, more than 1,000 sang “We’re working to save the country, Hallelujah!” at a Mass in Port-au-Prince cathedral to commemorate the papal visit. The church also opened a new parish outside south-coast Jacmel town.

With tens of thousands of people watching on March 9, 1983, John Paul stepped off the plane, bowed to kiss Haitian soil, and his skull cap fell off.

‘”The government is going to fall,’ the people said, interpreting it as a sign,” recalled Lilas Desquiron, now minister of culture.

Then, in heavily accented Creole, the pope uttered the unforgettable words: “Fok sa chanje!”

For many, “Things have got to change!” meant the end of the Duvalier dynasty.

For Bernadette Jean-Pierre, 62, who said she was at the airport that day, “the pope brought deliverance with him.” “Today, we are in need of a second deliverance.”

People began fighting back and eventually, with the backing of the United States and the Vatican, the Haitian army ousted Jean-Claude Duvalier. He fled to exile in France Feb. 7, 1986.

“We left the cycle of dictatorship to attempt the difficult road of democracy. Things changed irreversibly,” said Desquiron.

Government opponents disagree.

“The Pandora’s box was opened. The people clamored for economic and civil liberty. Our rulers have tried to force them back into the box ever since,” said Haiti’s foremost novelist, Gary Victor.

In January, he endorsed a declaration from 184 civil groups demanding an end to “the climate of terror” allegedly fostered by Aristide.

The European Union said Friday it is alarmed at “reports of increases in threats and intimidating behavior” toward journalists, human rights and opposition militants, and civil society and trade union leaders.

When the pope visited, Aristide was a firebrand slum priest who inspired the poor to stand up against state-sponsored terrorism. His superiors accused him of preaching violent class struggle, and he was expelled from the Salesian Fathers in 1988.

In December 1990, Aristide was elected in a landslide.

Days before his ouster by the army, in September 1991, Aristide addressed the U.N. General Assembly.

“He tried to ridicule the pope and the church,” suggesting their alleged hostility was “racist,” said Monsignor Guire Poulard, vice president of the Haitian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

In October 1994, U.S. troops restored Aristide. In 1996, constitutionally barred from serving consecutive terms, Aristide hand-picked Rene Preval, who warmed the bench for him until he was re-elected in 2000.

Still, little was done to relieve the deep poverty suffered by three out of five Haitians, who number 8.2 million, while a new elite surrounding Aristide lives high off the hog and is accused of corruption.

Economic hardships were compounded by a political morass over contested 2000 legislative elections swept by Aristide’s party.

Aristide’s pledge to hold new elections this year seems unlikely since the opposition ? which accuses him of trying to establish one-man, one-party rule ? refuses to participate.

The international community is withholding millions in aid as a result.

Since November, dozens of demonstrations have demanded Aristide resign. Clashes with police and Aristide partisans have left at least four dead and 350 injured.

“The hideous specter of fratricidal civil war is on the horizon,” the Bishops’ Conference warned Nov. 29.

Pointing to the ominous parallel with 1986, the bishops suggested Aristide “renounce power voluntarily for the greater good of the nation.”

They expressed disapproval of the growing cult of Aristide’s personality and urged his supporters “to fix their gaze not on a man but on the nation.”

Poulard was outspoken: “Aristide and his ruling circle are riding high, but the people are sinking in misery. If the pope came to Haiti today, his message would still be ‘Things have got to change!'”

Today, it’s the protesters who echo John Paul’s warning that the government “always pay attention to the cry of the poor and not disappoint their hopes.”