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Aristide and Aides Plan to 'Hit the Ground Running' : Caribbean: Wary of raising false hopes, their first goal is to improve the economy and 'move up to poverty.'

October 01, 1994|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It hardly sounds like a slogan to fuel a popular revolution: "From misery to poverty with dignity."

But it is with this modest goal--and an outline of the Herculean tasks necessary to get even that far--that Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his allies are packing their bags to return from exile in Washington to their Caribbean homeland.

Aristide's advisers concede that their economic goal would win few elections as a campaign slogan in the United States. But Jean-Claude Martineau, Aristide's official spokesman and a member of his Cabinet-in-exile, said Friday that Haiti's woeful economy now is "beyond poverty. As a first step, we would like to move up to poverty.

"The biggest problem we would have would be to promise too much," Martineau warned in an interview. "That creates frustration, and this is not what we want."

The United States, with more than 20,000 troops in Haiti, has forced the military leaders who overthrew Aristide three years ago Friday to make way for the firebrand priest and populist politician by Oct. 15.

Preparing for his return, Aristide is meeting daily in Washington with his Cabinet, international development specialists and Clinton Administration officials. His task will be nothing less than introducing democracy to a country that has freely elected only one leader--himself--in its nearly 200-year history and bringing economic stability to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The obstacles to modernizing Haiti--a country with an 85% illiteracy rate, a few haves among 7 million have-nots and a class of people who have benefited from being thugs all their lives--seem to overwhelm the eight-page, $1-billion economic development plan that Aristide is taking with him.

"We know the immensity of the work ahead, we understand the difficulty, and we are eager to tackle it," Martineau said.

During his first 120 days, he said, Aristide plans to select a prime minister, establish civilian control over a scaled-down military, create a police force separate from the military, develop a new judicial system and launch a massive public works program that will put as many as 50,000 people to work building roads and rebuilding cities.

"We plan to hit the ground running," Martineau said. "This is not work that can wait. We are already 200 years late in developing our country. The sense of urgency comes from this."

Many of the detailed plans for transforming Haiti from a country that is run by and for a tiny elite to one that serves the masses have been drafted and redrafted in a suite of offices rented by the exiled Haitian government in Washington's swank Georgetown neighborhood.

On Friday, desks were covered with documents, telephones were ringing incessantly, copy machines were going full tilt and urgent conversations could be heard in French and Creole between a variety of exiled officials.

On the wall hung a single portrait of the bespectacled president, the man who is on the verge of accomplishing what no other Latin American leader in recent memory ever has done: reverse a coup.

Key to Aristide's strategy of achieving "poverty with dignity" is guaranteeing the masses that they are no longer subject to the arbitrary power of military strongmen who have murdered, raped and otherwise brutalized them.

"The first priority of the people is justice," said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, another member of Aristide's Cabinet abroad and the leader of Haiti's largest peasant movement.

To accomplish this, according to Cabinet members and an eight-page plan, Aristide's government intends to:

* Complete the disarming of the 7,000-member Haitian armed forces and paramilitary groups, a task that U.S. troops already have begun, and replace them with a 1,500-member corps that will be subordinate to civilian government and based outside metropolitan areas. Only those who have never been involved in human rights abuses will remain in the military. Since Haiti has no external enemies, the new military will focus on disaster relief and public works.

* Create a police force separate from the military. Officers are being trained at new academies, created with the help of U.S. and international aid.

* Overhaul the judiciary so that judges no longer serve the elite and the military, as they have in the past. More courts will be opened, with judges elected by the people.

* Abolish the system of rural sheriffs, who are known for extorting money from peasants and serving corrupt members of the military and the elite. Fired during Aristide's first months in office, the sheriffs were restored to power by the military leaders who overthrew Aristide.

Aristide and his team are not relying on justice reforms alone.

"What misery means today in Haiti is that people have no ability to survive--no food, no homes, no access to health care," Jean-Baptiste said in a phone interview this week. "It's a question of giving them the minimum to live as humans."

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