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One Year Later, Exiled Aristide Continues to Wield Influence in Haiti

One year ago in the early morning hours of February 29, the president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, boarded a small jet with his wife and a few bodyguards and flew into exile. Mr. Aristide's departure defused a violent political crisis that had been growing for weeks, but his exit from Haiti remains controversial. To this day, Mr. Aristide claims he was forced to leave Haiti - a charge strongly denied by diplomats who helped facilitate his departure.

U.S. Ambassador James Foley says as political violence spiraled out of control in the last week of February 2004, it became clear that time was running out for Mr. Aristide. Armed gangs loyal to the Haitian President terrorized Port-au-Prince, and ex-Haitian Army rebels who were seeking his ouster were threatening to march on the capital.

Mr. Foley tells VOA there were real concerns that Mr. Aristide could be killed as the violence mounted.

"I think that if that would have happened [him being killed] in the next day or two had he not left, no one can say, but any possibility of his continuing to govern I think was gone," he said. "Across the board from the left to the right, and across civil society from the peasants to the students, he had lost the capacity to govern."

Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been facing mounting opposition for months from a coalition of business leaders, civil society activists and students. But he appeared immune to pressure until early February when an armed rebellion began in the city of Gonaives led by a street gang in the city. When the rebellion was joined by former Haitian army soldiers it spread rapidly to the rest of the country. Police authority melted away across the Haiti and in the capital, Port-au-Prince, gangs loyal to Mr. Aristide known as chimieres, or ghosts, shut down the city.

As Haitian government authority collapsed, Mr. Aristide was forced to rely for his personal safety on a small group of foreign bodyguards. Mr. Aristide spoke by telephone with Ambassador Foley, telling the U.S. diplomat he wanted to leave Haiti to avoid further violence.

Mr. Aristide faxed a letter of resignation to the U.S. Embassy in the early morning hours of February 29, and then drove with his bodyguards and several U.S. Embassy officials to the Port-au-Prince airport, where he handed over the original copy of his letter of resignation, and then boarded a plane to leave Haiti.

Ambassador Foley says he was more than surprised when just a few days later Mr. Aristide claimed he had been kidnapped and forced to leave Haiti.

It was the second time U.S. officials had facilitated Mr. Aristide's departure from Haiti - the first being in 1991 when military officers under his command staged a coup - and American diplomats helped him flee the country. U.S. troops restored Mr. Aristide to power in 1994 and forced Haiti's military leaders into exile.

Ambassador Foley says in retrospect Mr. Aristide's comments in the days and months following his departure amount to a convenient alibi to mask the real reason behind his exit.

"The United States, not for the first time, but for the second time saved his life," he said. "The reason he left, apart from the stated reason of wanting to spare the country violence, the sincerity of which, now in retrospect one can doubt, but the obvious reason was that the rebels were closing in on Port-au-Prince, and it was a question of life or death. We offered him a safe exit from the country, he accepted it, never questioned or argued about it or disagreed with it. He decided that it was the better part of valor to leave the country."

In the months since Jean-Bertrand Aristide departed Haiti hundreds have died in political violence and street gangs loyal to Mr. Aristide continue to terrorize much of Port-au-Prince. Many of Mr. Aristide's supporters in the Lavalas political movement that he helped to create say they are being persecuted by Haiti's interim government.

Several top officials in his former government, including ex-Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, who helped to lead the transition to an interim government have been jailed. Government officials say those in jail are there because they are charged with crimes and that members of Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Party are not being intimidated.

Ambassador Foley told VOA that Haiti's interim government should have done more to reach out to Mr. Aristide's supporters, but Mr. Aristide has worked to block political accommodation from exile in South Africa.

"I think it is no secret it was felt widely in the Lavalas movement that their leadership, ultimately, was against any participation in the process in the interim arrangements and in the electoral process," he said. "So there has been some kind of a veto wielded from afar if you will, that Lavalas leaders who do want to participate, who do want to participate and compete in the elections because they think they have a good chance of winning have thus far been very reluctant to do so."

Ambassador James Foley says at the street level, where Aristide supporters are active, there are clear indications of a coordinated campaign of violence aimed at undermining the authority of U.N. peacekeepers and forcing the return of Mr. Aristide.

Echoing comments made recently by senior U.N. officials, Ambassador Foley says what is needed from Mr. Aristide at this moment in his country's history, is a clear and unambiguous statement from the former president to his supporters that violence is completely unacceptable.