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Haiti's Failed Coup Attempt 'Eerily Familiar' - 2001-12-19

Earlier this week, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide survived an apparent coup attempt, as security forces repelled gunmen who stormed the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. A self-styled champion of Haiti's poor, Mr. Arisitde has long been a polarizing figure in Haiti. Yet not everyone views him as the leader he once was.

Monday's failed coup attempt had an eerily familiar feeling. It was 10 years ago that Haiti's army overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide, sending the country's first democratically-elected president into exile and plunging the country into dictatorial rule.

Mr. Aristide again faced a dire threat within months of re-taking office, but this time security forces came to his aid. Mr. Aristide's political allies were also quick to mobilize and take to the streets, both in Port-au-Prince and in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.

While campaigning in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide spoke incessantly of justice for Haiti's impoverished, disenfranchised populace, promising to wrestle 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 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, he was a Roman Catholic priest wedded to a dream he espoused at every opportunity. Today he is married and rarely ventures from the palace or his private estate on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

The president's minister for planning and external cooperation, Marc Bazin, says there is no way Mr. Aristide could be the same man he was in 1990.

"Ten-years ago, President Aristide was dedicated to liberation theology, which has very simple answers to very complicated problems," Mr. Bazin says. "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. He has become more realistic and, certainly, less popular."

Mr. Aristide handily won the November 2000 presidential vote amid an opposition boycott. Voter turn out was less then 20 percent.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, many 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.

Indeed, the opposition refuses to recognize Mr. Aristide as president. But many opposition leaders were once ardent backers of Mr. Aristide.

Misha Gaillard is a spokesman for an opposition umbrella group, the Democratic Convergence. He says, 11 years ago, he would have given his life for Mr. Aristide, but grew 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.

Misha Gaillard says he and others misjudged Mr. Aristide. He says Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been an embarrassment and that the Haitian people will never trust anyone again.

Minister for Planning and External Cooperation Marc Bazin concedes President Aristide has faced stiff challenges since returning to office.

"I think he has achieved much less than he thought he would," he says. "I think he was not expecting the situation to be so difficult. Obviously, there is a gap between what he wants and what he gets."

In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide's "out-in-front" style of governing ended in a coup. Observers say it is only natural that, today, Mr. Aristide is more cautious and wary.

Yet, as recent events have shown, he still has enemies. And his lack of visibility since returning to office has left many observers wondering where he intends to lead the country, and how he intends to get there.