Originally: Once a messiah, now the chief pariah


A decade ago, Jean-Bertrand Aristide seemed to be Haiti’s new messiah, a slightly built, soft-spoken priest intent on lifting his battered nation from two centuries of mind-wrenching poverty.

Today, his critics say, he enjoys a private plane, four helicopters and a personal security force that costs $11 million per year, yet his nation remains mired in misery.

Injustice reigns in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. One percent of the population holds most of the wealth. Human rights are routinely abused. And President Aristide has failed to turn things around even as he and his family pile up considerable riches, some analysts say.

All of that, along with flawed legislative elections that critics say were rigged in favor of Mr. Aristide’s party, has fueled a revolt that began two weeks ago and has left more than 60 people dead.

And as Mr. Aristide agreed on Saturday to accept a U.S.-brokered peace plan that calls for him to share power with his opponents, analysts said the Haitian president has only himself to blame.

“Aristide bears major responsibility for how things have turned out in Haiti,” said Juny McCalla, head of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.

“He was very popular in the late 1980s and as a priest he had more weight and credibility than any of Haiti’s politicians. He was also very outspoken against the dictatorship and military rule. But over the years he has alienated a lot of people. It will be very difficult for him to get out of this one,” said Mr. McCalla, whose group has offices in Haiti and New York.

Jessica Leight, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., said it’s too early to know whether the peace plan announced Saturday will have any impact. The opposition must agree to it, and the United States and other international players must have “a real commitment” to push for political reforms and parliamentary elections.

In addition, she said, it remains to be seen if the Haitian government will keep its promises.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” she said

Rise to power

In the 1980s, Mr. Aristide denounced the murderous regime of Baby Doc Duvalier, becoming a hero to the country’s poor masses. He endured assassination attempts, spoke out against violence and embraced orphans in the wretched slums outside the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Elected in 1990 and later deposed by an army coup, Mr. Aristide was returned to power with the help of 22,000 American troops 10 years ago. But critics say he failed to keep his promise to help the poor and has unwisely weakened government institutions.

As president he disbanded the military and downsized the police force, soon becoming the kind of autocratic leader he used to criticize, some analysts say.

“He’s done nothing to help Haiti’s 8 million people, most of whom are extraordinarily poor,” said Terry Thielen, an expert with the private Haiti Democracy Project in Washington, D.C. “His focus has been on consolidating power for himself.

“Conditions have only gotten worse,” said Ms. Thielen, who has worked in Haiti and last visited the island in October. “On any given day, you have to dodge goats, dogs, pigs and mile-high piles of garbage. There are potholes as big as a car. There’s no electricity much of the time. There’s no functioning health care system. And you still can’t drink the water.”

The group she works for, the Haiti Democracy Project, is led by James Morrell, a former Aristide adviser who has accused Haitian authorities of falsifying the results of the 2000 legislative elections.

Opponents have insisted that Mr. Aristide step down, but he has adamantly refused. His supporters say he is Haiti’s legitimately elected leader and should serve out his term, which ends in 2006.

Mr. Aristide’s decision Saturday to accept the peace plan improves his chances of staying in power until his term ends, said Robert Fatton, author of the 2002 book Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy.

That could change, however, if the opposition grows stronger and the United States decides to intervene, he said.

“The situation could descend into pure chaos with no one in charge,” Mr. Fatton said. Opposition leaders have “consistently argued that they would not accept any compromise that was not leading to the resignation of Mr. Aristide. I think it’s a very dangerous gamble.”

Mr. Fatton also said the Haitian opposition that the United States is dealing with does not include the armed gangs that have been terrorizing northern Haiti.

And while the opposition demands that Mr. Aristide leave power, no other option – no other legitimate leader – exists on the island, said Marie Andrine Constant, Haiti’s ambassador in Cuba.

“In spite of the alliance that exists between various groups, the opposition does not have enough strength to mobilize and win an election,” she said.

Peaceful solution

Aid worker Vanessa Dickey said she hopes the gangs opposed to Mr. Aristide will let the rule of law – and not violence – guide their actions. She is executive director of the Siméus Foundation, a private Mansfield group that operates a health clinic in Haiti.

“My hope for Haiti is that all parties stop where they are and think about what they would like Haiti to be in 100 years,” she said. “I believe most Haitians want what is best for their country. Democracy is still young in Haiti, and if it is going to be allowed to grow, everyone must do their part to nurture it.

“Haitians created the first independent black republic,” Ms. Dickey said. “They can, I believe, find a way.”

Still, she fears, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”