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Now the Spotlight Is on Haiti's Elite

December 23, 1990

The mere fact that Haiti held a democratic election is inspiring.

Consider the awesome poverty there, the brutishness of the Duvalier dictatorship that ruled the island until recently and the tendency for almost everything to go wrong.

During the Duvalier years especially, Haitians lived with horrific violence; it continued even after their overthrow. Further bloodshed murdered the last serious attempt at an election, in 1987. Who could possibly have hoped that last week's voting would prove so peaceful?

But now the near-impossible task of getting an impoverished nation of 6 million people on its feet goes to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who was elected president with 70% of the popular vote.

Aristide is widely known in Haiti--and feared in some upper-class circles--for his fierce advocacy on behalf of the poor. He now has an undeniable popular mandate, and only time will tell how the often-fiery sermonizer uses it. That's the main thing worrying many of Aristide's critics in Haiti's small but influential elite class. They ask if a 37-year-old cleric with no experience in government can effectively run a nation impoverished by generations of underdevelopment as well as three decades of having the treasury looted by Duvaliers.

It's a legitimate question, but nobody can know the answer until Aristide actually has a chance to govern. And one suspects that his odds of success will increase to the extent he is offered the guidance and support of the Haitian elite that so fears him. The possibility is not out of the question. Most of Haiti's upper crust disapproved of the Duvaliers, too, but were able to support them when it became necessary to keep the country afloat. If they could deal with thugs like the Duvaliers, Haiti's elite should be able to live with Aristide.

Aristide will also need outside help, especially economic aid. It was most encouraging that the United States was one of the first countries to weigh in with a public show of support for Aristide after the election results became known.

Bernard Aronson, the assistant secretary of state who handles Latin America, said this county respects the electoral mandate Aristide has "and looks forward to working closely with his government." Aronson also went beyond the normal diplomatic niceties and quoted a Haitian proverb to Aristide: "The more hands offered the lighter the load." The clear implication is that one of those hands will be Uncle Sam's. If enough leaders in Haiti, and around the world, share Aronson's generous spirit, then the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere has a chance at genuine democracy--and maybe even minimal prosperity.

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