Originally: Haiti’s Aristide; up against the wall, again
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb 18 (Reuters) – Once feted as a champion of
democracy in a country scarred by decades of dictatorships, Haitian
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is now threatened by an armed revolt that
some critics say he has only himself to blame for.
Aristide, a slight and studious-looking 50-year-old, is a former
parish priest who became a hero of Haiti’s legions of poor when he emerged
from delivering sermons denouncing oppression to become the country’s first
democratically elected president in 1991 after years of brutal
But he was burdened with huge expectations, and his wide popularity
has faded as he failed to ease the Caribbean country’s chronic poverty and,
say his critics, resorted to thuggish tactics to maintain power.
Aristide, restored to office in 1994 by a U.S. invasion three years
after he was bundled out in a military coup, is now back nearly where he
was a decade ago: asking for foreign help restoring his authority.
“Aristide is really in a corner. To a large degree it is of his own
making,” Robert Fatton, a politics professor at the University of Virginia,
said after the revolt erupted in the city of Gonaives two weeks ago, led by
an armed gang that used to support Aristide but turned against him.
“If you’re dealing with thugs, you get thuggish behavior.”
The uprising came on top of a three-year stand-off between Aristide
and his political opponents over flawed parliamentary elections in May 2000
that has stalled millions of dollars in foreign aid to the poorest country
in the Americas, where most of the 8 million population live on less than a
dollar a day.
Aristide has branded his opponents a mulatto elite seeking to grab
back political dominance over the poor, black majority in a Caribbean
country that threw off slavery and gained independence from France in 1804.
Aristide, determined to complete a second term that ends in 2006,
still commands support in many poor areas, and even political opponents
concede there is probably no single opposition figure in Haiti who would
beat him in an election.
But critics say Aristide has squandered popularity and credibility by
scorning a legitimate political opposition.
Robert Rotberg, a Harvard University expert on Haiti, said Aristide
had started out looking morally sound but, like his predecessors, succumbed
to the corruption of power.
“If you start off as a savior, you think you know how to do things,”
said Rotberg, who wrote in a newspaper article last month that Aristide’s
administration had been “mired in corruption, swamped by narco-trafficking,
and complicit in economic stagnation.”
Born in the southern town of Port Salut on July 15, 1953, Aristide
studied theology and psychology and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest
in 1983. He rose to prominence denouncing the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby
Doc” Duvalier and the military dictatorships that followed after Duvalier
fled in 1986.
He gained an almost invincible aura when he survived several
He was the landslide winner in 1990 elections, Haiti’s first free
vote, but was bundled out in a coup just seven months after taking office
and spent three years in exile.
He finally returned to office through a U.S.-led invasion in 1994,
disbanded the army and set about reforming the police force. He stepped
aside in 1996, replaced by a successor from the ruling Lavalas Party, but
remained an influential figure behind President Rene Preval.
Aristide won a second term in November 2000, but most of the
opposition boycotted the vote in protest at parliamentary elections earlier
that year. Aristide and political opposition parties have sparred
incessantly and inconclusively over the holding of fresh elections and
Critics now view the last decade as one of wasted hopes.
“He has a natural bent to be a populist leader, he doesn’t have the
capacity to run anything, and if you have a populist without a real agenda,
you’re feeding a demagogue,” said Lawrence Pezzullo, a former U.S. special
envoy to Haiti who worked on Aristide’s return to office in 1994.
“That’s what’s done him in now. He’s run out the clock with the
Haitian people and with the political opposition … through fraudulent
elections, intimidation and broken promises.”