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Aristide Comes Under International Pressure to Resign - 2004-02-27

The international community is pressuring Haiti's first-ever democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to resign amid deepening violence and chaos in his impoverished country. Mr. Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was once almost universally loved in Haiti as a champion of the poor.

Even with rebels advancing toward Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, President Aristide delivered a message of hope in a recent news conference from the national palace.

"We will continue to work hard to build a state of law, to invest in human beings through education and health care, to guarantee security to every single citizen," he said.

For many, the embattled leader's words fell on deaf ears.

Lottery ticket vendor Jean Pelicier says he voted for Mr. Aristide in 1990, when the former priest first won the presidency in a landslide. A carpenter by trade, Mr. Pelicier says he cannot find work and has no choice but to sell lottery tickets. He says most Haitians would never vote for Mr. Aristide again.

He says, "The same majority that supported President Aristide is now against him, and the world has seen the harm he has caused. The president made a lot of promises to the people, and they were not kept."

The present discontent with Mr. Aristide stands in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when, as a young priest ministering to a Port-au-Prince slum, he achieved hero-status because of his fiery sermons demanding justice and a better life for the poor.

Ingrid Jaar, a Catholic who lives near the capital, says she remembers seeing Mr. Aristide in public some 16 years ago.

Ms. Jaar says, "I saw him and how people were amazed by him. He had a sweet face, like a lamb."

As a priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide espoused a doctrine known as "liberation theology," which views Jesus Christ as a revolutionary fighting for social justice. Speaking with VOA by telephone from the southern Haitian city of Jacmel, Bishop Guire Prulard says Mr. Aristide's message and methods put him in conflict with the Catholic Church.

The bishop says, "Not only did he cause a stir within the Catholic hierarchy, but also within his [Salesian] order. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was reassigned repeatedly from church to church because of his disobedience. He was obstinate, and did not accept authority."

Bishop Prulard adds that Mr. Aristide's methods eventually drew the ire of the Vatican, and that in 1988 he was expelled from his order.

A survivor of multiple assassination attempts, Mr. Aristide entered politics and was swept to the presidency in 1990. But his incessant rhetoric of class warfare deeply alarmed Haiti's small cadre of wealthy citizens. Haiti's army overthrew him seven months after taking office.

The United States helped restore Mr. Aristide to power in 1994, and he served out the remaining two years of his term. He was elected a second time in 2000.

But in the years since then the popular perception of Mr. Aristide has changed. Many Haitians accuse him of being reclusive and abandoning those he promised to help, and condoning, if not orchestrating, violence against political opponents.

Bishop Prulard says he always believed Mr. Aristide's leap into politics was a mistake.

The bishop says, "The last time I saw President Aristide, I hardly recognized him. It was as if his face had been transformed. He looks like he is under tremendous pressure and stress. He no longer seems in control of himself."

Port-au-Prince resident Ingrid Jaar says President Aristide has left millions disappointed.

Ms. Jaar says, "People who walk to the ocean need a way across - a messiah, a leader. We thought Aristide would help us cross the ocean, but instead he did a lot of harm."

Ms. Jaar adds that Haitians have learned a bitter lesson and will be less likely to believe any politician in the future. She says history will record, with irony, that Haiti's first freely elected leader ultimately left the people more jaded about the democratic process.

But lottery ticket vendor Jean Pelicier shakes his head when asked if Haitians have lost faith in democracy.

He says, "No, because we have never had a real democracy in Haiti to begin with."