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Aristide Return Viewed in a Different Light - 2001-09-10


Eleven-years ago, Haiti chose its first democratically-elected president. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was swept into office with the overwhelming support of Haiti's poor, many of whom viewed him as a long-awaited messiah

Eleven-years ago, Haiti chose its first democratically-elected president. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was swept into office with the overwhelming support of Haiti's poor, many of whom viewed him as a long-awaited messiah. A military coup ousted Mr. Aristide months later. Today he is president once again, but not everyone views the 48-year-old Mr. Aristide as the leader he once was.

While campaigning in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide spoke incessantly of justice for Haiti's impoverished, disenfranchised populace. The message was clear: he would empower the people economically and politically, wrestling control from the oligarchy that had maintained an iron grip on Haiti for decades.

Earlier this year, in his inaugural speech for a second term in office, President Aristide again spoke of justice, showing the same fiery populism of yesteryear. Mr. Aristide asked, what about the health of justice in Haiti is it sick or very sick? He answered, saying the people believe it is very sick, that justice is ailing. Mr. Aristide said there must be a search for a cure and that a cure will be found.

But much has changed for Jean-Bertrand Aristide during the past 11-years. In 1990, Mr. Aristide was a Roman Catholic priest wedded to an all-consuming dream he espoused at every opportunity. Today he is married and rarely ventures from the presidential palace or the seclusion of his private estate on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. He is hardly ever seen and almost never heard.

The president's Minister for Planning and External Cooperation, Marc Bazin, says there is no way Mr. Aristide could be exactly the same man he was in 1990. "Ten-years ago, President Aristide was, first of all, a priest. And he was dedicated to liberation theology, which has very simple answers to very complicated problems," says Mr. Bazin. "Now, the man is 10-years older. He is no longer a priest; he is married and has two kids. I believe that he has learned a great deal about the realities of power and the difficulties of reconciling the objectives of many people. To a large extent he has become more realistic and, certainly, less popular."

Mr. Aristide handily won last November's presidential vote. But he ran unopposed, as the opposition boycotted the election. Voter turn-out was estimated at less then 20-percent.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, many ordinary Haitians say it is obvious their president is a different man. But construction worker Berto Jean says, for now, he is willing to give Mr. Aristide the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Jean says he thinks President Aristide has changed during the past 10-years. But he says Mr. Aristide has only changed in reaction to other forces, to the opposition he faces. Mr. Jean says those who oppose the President want to show that only they can improve conditions in Haiti, and that this has made it difficult for Mr. Aristide to govern.

Indeed, the opposition refuses to recognize Mr. Aristide as president. But many opposition leaders were once ardent backers of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the early 1990's. Misha Gaillard is a spokesman for an opposition umbrella group, the Democratic Convergence. Mr. Gaillard says, 11-years ago, he would have laid down his life for Mr. Aristide - but has become disillusioned with the man he once thought would save Haiti.

Mr. Gaillard says Haiti has missed a great opportunity with Jean-Bertrand Aristide: to build a modern society. He says, when first elected in 1990, Mr. Aristide was a charismatic leader who could have united the country and attained a greatness like that of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Unfortunately, the opposition spokesman says, Mr. Aristide was consumed by populism and did not trust any of his advisors, fearing that they would come between himself and the people.

Misha Gaillard says, in the final analysis, Mr. Aristide has not really changed. Rather, he says Mr. Aristide was misjudged from the very beginning. He says Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been an embarrassment for those who placed their faith in him. He says the Haitian people will never trust anyone again.

Minister for Planning and External Cooperation Marc Bazin says President Aristide has faced challenges since returning to office, but can still point to some achievements. " I think he has achieved much less than

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