Originally: Haiti’s Embattled Leader Vows to Finish Term

February 17, 2004

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 16 ? President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, defiant in the face of an increasingly violent opposition movement, denounced it on Monday as an effort to overthrow Haiti’s elected government and declared that only he can save the country from civil war.

“We have had 32 coups in our history,” Mr. Aristide said in an hourlong interview with The New York Times at the National Palace on Monday morning. “The result is what we have now: moving from misery to poverty. We need not continue moving from one coup d’état to another coup d’état, but from one elected president to another elected president.”

Asked whether he would consider stepping aside to prevent further bloodshed in a conflict that has killed dozens of people and paralyzed much of the country, he replied: “I will leave office Feb. 7, 2006. My responsibility is precisely to prevent that from happening. What we are doing now is preventing bloodshed.”

Speaking in an anteroom outside his spacious office, he called for armed opposition groups to lay down their weapons and for political opponents to begin discussions with the aim of having new parliamentary elections as soon as possible.

“It is time for us to stop the violence and to implement the Caricom proposal for elections,” Mr. Aristide said, referring to the plan of the Caribbean Community, an organization of Caribbean states, to build trust between the government and opposition groups as part of the groundwork for new parliamentary elections.

Political strife has swept the country since 2000, when a dispute over parliamentary elections that the Organization of American States and other foreign observers said were flawed led opposition political parties to boycott the presidential election later that year.

The confrontation has escalated in recent months as opposition groups took to the streets to protest what they contend is Mr. Aristide’s increasingly autocratic style. This month, the political dispute turned violent, with armed groups overrunning police stations in a dozen cities and towns.

The violence spread further on Monday. Militants took over the police station in Hinche, a town about 45 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, the capital, killing the police chief, The Associated Press reported.

Now, with a violent group of former Aristide supporters in control of Gonaïves, a major city on the main north-south highway between the capital and Cap Haitien, the country’s second largest city, a crisis looms in the arid north, where more than a quarter million people need food assistance to survive.

The current political crisis is a dramatic reversal for Mr. Aristide, once a parish priest serving in the slums who became the country’s first democratically elected president. He was revered by millions, especially among Haiti’s rural and urban poor, and seen as the savior who would finally lift the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. He turned in his clerical collar for a wedding ring, marrying an American-born Haitian, and his vestments for business suits.

Opposition groups and diplomats accuse him of forming militant gangs that act as a sort of auxiliary force to the police. One such group is behind the uprising in Gonaïves. Its leaders say they have joined with sinister figures from the country’s violent past, including the leader of death squads that terrorized the country after the coup in 1991 that ousted Mr. Aristide. The United States returned him to power with 20,000 American troops in 1994.

The 2000 elections led to the suspension of $500 million in international aid, an act Mr. Aristide refers to as an “economic embargo,” and he blames this suspension for his failure to transform Haiti’s economy, health and education. “I don’t say I am the best,” Mr. Aristide said. “But think of what I did with nothing in terms of financial resources.”

He said his main achievement, however, was reviving Haiti’s spirit. He cited a march on Feb. 7, which the government claims drew a million people in support of his presidency. “The Haitian people want to live with dignity,” Mr. Aristide said. “We don’t sell our dignity. Dignity is linked to freedom. We don’t sell our freedom.

“If last Saturday, despite the economic situation, one million marched in a peaceful way, it is because they see we are not lying to them, we are telling them the truth. Dignity, freedom and truth are linked.”

Political and civic opposition groups, who disavow any connection with the armed uprisings, have said they will not take part in elections until Mr. Aristide steps down.

“It is impossible to get free, honest and democratic elections with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the National Palace because he will control the whole process,” said Micha Gaillard, a leader of the Democratic Convergence, the main opposition group, in an interview on Monday. “But if the first step for him is not to resign, then he should deliver what Caricom asked him to do.”

The Caricom proposals would require Mr. Aristide to take a number of steps, from ensuring that opposition marches can go forward to disarming groups of militants loyal to the president. He must also reform the country’s tiny police force, which has fewer than 4,000 members, and form a governing council that would include opposition groups. Mr. Aristide said he has begun taking action on all of those requirements, but offered little concrete evidence, only future plans.

Mr. Aristide said opposition groups do not support elections because they are afraid they will lose and would rather let the country slowly destabilize. “They fear the principle of `one man, one vote,’ ” Mr. Aristide said. “They don’t fear me; they fear the people. And they don’t fear the people because the people are violent. They fear the people because the people are ready to vote.”

He accused the leaders of political and civic opposition groups of being in league with the militants who have taken over Gonaïves. “The government is doing what it can to have a safe environment,” he said. “On the other side, they are killing people, keeping 150,000 people hostage in Gonaïves.”

Mr. Aristide condemned the involvement of Louis-Jodel Chamblain, an official in the former Haitian Army who was accused of committing many atrocities as part of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, known as Fraph, after the 1991 coup.

“Fraph and the army killed more than 5,000 people and pigs were eating their corpses,” he said. “And today Fraph is back.”

Experts on Haitian politics said the arrival of militants like Mr. Chamblain had made it all the more urgent that the current crisis be resolved quickly, before those forces take control of a larger portion of the country.

Henry Carey, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, said the opposition must abandon its insistence that no elections be held until Mr. Aristide is gone. “What they should do is put the interests of country ahead of their own antipathy and own personal enmity,” Professor Carey said.

At the same time, Mr. Aristide must own up to relying on violent gangs and take the necessary steps to disarm and neutralize them, Professor Carey said. “What he has got to do is stop the violation of human rights and he has got to demobilize these violent groups,” he said. “But he can’t do that without international help.”