WASHINGTON ? Ten years ago, a former Haitian priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide lived down a heavily guarded hallway
from Attorney General Janet Reno in a Washington apartment building. He strummed a guitar to relax, lived the life of a monk
and waited for the end of exile.
He had a legion of followers – mostly dirt-poor peasants – back in Haiti, where he had been elected president but had been ousted
in a coup. So for nearly three years, waiting to see whether the West would support his efforts to return, he made the rounds in
the United States and Europe, drawing crowds of curious students, activists and politicians. He spoke in parables that left
non-Haitians scratching their heads but transported his faithful into laughter and hope, and made himself a symbol of democracy
From the start, though, there were problems. Critics said he had brought exile on himself. While still in Haiti, he had spoken in
favor of necklacing, the practice of placing burning tires around an enemy’s neck, to strike fear into opponents’ hearts. His
sermons were laced with anti-American phrases. Some Haitians said he was mentally imbalanced; a C.I.A. profile predicted that
he would rule with violence.
Eventually the United States helped him regain power, but now Mr. Aristide’s critics say history has proved them right. In the
face of defections from supporters and a spreading rebellion, last week he found himself forsaken by France, which called on him
to step aside, and placed at arm’s length by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
When asked whether Mr. Aristide should resign, Secretary Powell answered: “I hope he will just examine the situation that he is
in and make a careful examination of how best to serve the Haitian people at this time.”
Mr. Aristide’s story embodies much that is Haiti – a place where few things are ever exactly as they present themselves, where
promises that conditions will improve are almost never kept, and where officials from outside often have only bad options.
For the first days of the current uprising, when shadowy figures slipped across the Dominican border and began to capture Haiti’s
lesser cities, the impulse of the international community was to rally behind Mr. Aristide. He is as close to a democratically
elected leader as Haiti can claim, even though he held power with the aid of extra-legal gangs, won his second term in 2000 in an
election that the political opposition boycotted, and is accused by critics – including top officials in Washington – of corruption and
rule by intimidation. His support inside and outside Haiti had already been hollowed out.
Robert Maguire, an expert on Haiti and a professor at Trinity College in Washington, said Mr. Aristide became intoxicated with
“He feels he doesn’t have to play the traditional Haitian political game,” Mr. Maguire said. “It’s like he says, ‘I’m king of the
world.’ That’s the way he has governed. He has alienated many, many people.”
Even some Americans who want to shore up Mr. Aristide say they have misgivings. Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida,
an advocate of sending in a force to stabilize Haiti immediately, calls him “more than a disappointment.” Mr. Aristide, he said,
had vowed “to lead Haiti out of its long history of crisis and poverty. It hasn’t happened. So he has to assume some of the
But the prospect of cutting Mr. Aristide loose raises the question of the consequences. They begin with setting a precedent of
allowing political enemies and their loosely allied gunmen to topple one more elected government in a hemisphere that thought it
was ending that kind of cycle.
Even so, the administration has largely cast its lot with the political opposition, which includes coalitions of figures from groups
like Haiti’s business elite, trade unions and teachers. They revile Mr. Aristide’s populism but claim to support democratic
principles. One prominent leader, André Apaid, is an American-born factory owner who rebuffed several efforts by Mr. Powell
last week to cut a deal that would let Mr. Aristide keep nominal power.
Administration officials insist they are not encouraging putschists. Among those seen as possible alternatives to Mr. Aristide are
Leslie Manigat, a former president who was ousted by the military after five months in 1988, and Marc Bazin, a former World
Bank official and presidential candidate. Both have long been taken seriously in Washington as men who advocate better
government and democratic rights.
The violent opposition is another matter. By most accounts, it is a ragtag group led by several former officers in the military that
Mr. Aristide disbanded. They have come out of exile in the Dominican Republic.
The rebel leaders include Guy Philippe, 35, a former police commissioner with a record that Human Rights Watch considers
“dubious”; Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former paramilitary officer who has been accused of numerous political slayings; and
Jean-Pierre Baptiste, a convicted killer who had been a local leader of an anti-Aristide force known as Fraph.
He now belongs to the Artibonite Resistance Front, Human Rights Watch said. The front, formerly called the Cannibal Army,
enforced Mr. Aristide’s rule in the city of Gonaïves before its leader was killed. The leader’s brother, Butteur Metayer, blamed
the president and led the group to rebel.
Despite the rebels’ success at sowing chaos, many American officials were saying last week that they might number as few as
several hundred. What really worried the officials was the prospect that a humanitarian crisis would explode before the political
turmoil could be resolved. They warned that Port-au-Prince, the capital, could slip into anarchy and large-scale bloodshed. This, in
turn, could lead huge numbers of Haitians to do what they have often done in crises: build boats and head for Florida.
President Bush, who cannot relish that prospect in an election year, made it clear last week that an exodus would not be tolerated.
Mr. Aristide pointedly warned that his ouster might in fact create such a flood.
Nancy E. Soderberg, who was with President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council when Mr. Aristide was reinstated with the
support of American troops, said there is a lesson in the seemingly impossible choices being faced today: that the world must not
pull out from failed states too early. “You have to stay engaged long after the peace is solved or history repeats itself,” she said.
But that, in some ways, is an optimistic way of stating how the experts are feeling.
“You can appreciate the frustration of the international community,” said Joshua Sears, the ambassador of Bahamas in
Washington. “We cannot be doing this every 10 years. It’s just not possible.”