LOS ANGELES — Jean-Bertrand Aristide may be indelibly marked for assassination as he dares heal his ugly, fragmented Haiti.
"But I am not afraid for my life," claims Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti in 200 years. Six months ago, he also became the new republic's first democratically elected president to be exiled.
"I will never die. One day my body will go out through death. But it will not be the death of my spirit."
Aristide--in Los Angeles last week to talk human rights and plumb American support for Haiti at high schools, churches and City Hall--speaks no doubts about his future: Despite a crumbled power structure, a puppet president and a coup general clinging to office, he will return to Haiti. This time, he says, it has been mandated by the 34-nation Organization of American States, whose agreement needs only ratification by Haiti's National Assembly.
"Here is a chance for OAS to save its credibility and a chance for the international community to show how they can defend democracy," Aristide continues. Those combined opportunities, he believes, will restore democracy--and Aristide--to Haiti.
No one is quite sure when, or if, the OAS agreement will be ratified.
Regardless, his Caribbean island is a disaster, its vital signs and percentages primal. The population is 85% illiterate, 80% earn less than $150 a year, infant mortality is 25%, and 5% of the population controls 50% of the wealth. The poorest, unhealthiest, dirtiest, bloodiest, most desperate nation in the hemisphere, it is no traditional place for humanitarians--even a president who has preached Jesus' love and justice while slinging an Uzi.
Why would anyone want to lead such a place?
"First . . . it is my responsibility," says Aristide, a 38-year-old former Salesian priest. "I am Haitian, it is my country, I give my life for my country, for sharing love, for fighting peacefully for justice and democracy.
"Second . . . I am the president, and my place is in Haiti to continue what I have accepted for five years.
"Third . . . how great is that people who continue to give their lives to change their lives, to fight with their hands while other hands are filled with weapons?
"How can I accept staying far from them?"
Violence has always been more common than peace as a Haitian ideology.
The nation was founded in 1791 by slaves who spent 13 years dislodging and slaughtering the French masters of their rich sugar, coffee and spice fields.
Unsophisticated, Haitians had no grounding in government beyond tribal ways and the legacies of white monarchists. Those with the most machetes won office. Haitian history became a 200-year skein of emperors, governors and presidents-for-life.
Voodoo survives in Haiti. So does a mixed-race ruling elite, descendants of the French and their slaves, who control Haiti's civil service and professions, wealth and clout.
Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, a country doctor, grabbed the island in 1957 and dictated through the military and his personal goon squad, the murderous Tontons Macoute. Papa Doc died in office in 1971.
His son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, continued the tyranny until 1986, when rebels forced him to flee to France.
Corrupt Haiti broke down in subsequent upheavals. Roads have fallen apart. When they work, utilities provide power in four-hour spurts. Only 13% of the population has access to potable water.
But in 1990, the nation's grass roots sprouted.
Aristide--a liberation theologian priest since expelled by his order for urging class warfare and social justice through an odd meld of Christianity and Marxism--promised a clean, working future.
Despite the 7,000-man military and its generals, drug lords who sometimes were generals and businessmen behind 10 other candidates, the people prevailed. With United Nations poll watchers to assure fair play, Aristide swept 66% of the vote.
There have been three attempts on his life. A military coup started and failed. When another stirred, generals made sure troops and guns were in the streets before the president's supporters could stir.
Ergo, nine months after election, Aristide was in exile in Caracas, Veneuzuela.
The OAS has since established a hemisphere-wide economic embargo of the new administration, which has brought Haiti close to starvation. An agreement has been drafted under which the deposed president would be returned to office. Aristide has agreed to accept a political opponent as prime minister and remove the army head who commanded the September coup.
When the accord is ratified, the embargo will end, and a $450-million program of international aid will resume.
But that future, according to diplomats and Haiti watchers, is far from clear. Even if ratified, the accord might not hold. The coup general could have even more power up his sleeve.
As in other republics, Aristide may be maneuvered into a position of vastly reduced powers. Or, say other observers, popular support could wane if Aristide proves less than an immortal savior.