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Haiti Readies for Aristide's Return : Caribbean: Security is a main concern as U.S. troops expect up to 800,000 to gather for the president's homecoming.

October 15, 1994|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It has taken more than three years of bluster and inducements, harsh sanctions and, finally, 20,000 American troops, and now Jean-Bertrand Aristide is coming back.

In an act almost unparalleled in a hemisphere where ousted leaders either are killed or waste away in exile, the man his followers call "TiTid" (Little Aristide) and "Savior" is scheduled to walk off a U.S.-provided jetliner today and resume the Haitian presidency.

The restoration of the 40-year-old suspended Catholic priest comes three years and 15 days after he was driven from office by a military and civilian elite that believed his overwhelming election and his populist policies threatened their privileges, power and wealth.

By late Friday, nearly everything was ready. A podium had been built in front of the entrance to the Presidential Palace for his first public appearance, pigs had been ordered off the streets by City Hall, and Haitian army Maj. Marc Valme had been fired from the airport police force after vowing to shoot Aristide when he landed.

Not since Juan Peron returned to Argentina from exile in 1973 has there been such an event in the region, although U.S. and Haitian security experts expect to prevent anything like the murderous gun battle between rival Peron followers that spoiled his welcome.

Security is the main concern today. Access to streets around the Presidential Palace, as well as the airport road, will be cordoned off by thousands of heavily armed U.S soldiers for the 11 a.m. (8 a.m. PDT) arrival.

Other troops will keep the tens of thousands of Haitians expected to gather downtown from storming the gates of the Presidential Palace, where Aristide will deliver his homecoming speech about two hours after touchdown.

And a large American and Haitian bodyguard will shield the president.

According to plans, Aristide will be seen in public only during the afternoon hour set aside for his speech and welcoming ceremonies. He will lunch privately in the palace with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and more than 200 other diplomats, American Congress members, foreign supporters and dignitaries scheduled to arrive in his three-plane convoy from Washington.

U.S. tanks and armored vehicles, as well as motorized and foot patrols, were in evidence throughout downtown Port-au-Prince on Friday with the expectation, American officials said, "that our presence will deter any enemies of democracy."

Those enemies presumably could include even some Aristide followers. Tanks, armored vehicles and more soldiers will be posted on key streets leading to elite neighborhoods.

"The idea is make sure mobs don't form and break loose," said a Capt. Sullivan of the 10th Mountain Division, who said he was involved in the security planning. He would not give his first name.

One of the great concerns expressed about Aristide in the seven months before the military revolted was the perception by the wealthy that he was urging his followers to engage in dechoukaj , a Creole word literally meaning "uprooting" but used in Haiti to describe total devastation.

"We don't expect troubles like that," said Stanley Schrager, U.S. Embassy spokesman. "Aristide doesn't want violence, and his organizers will see that demonstrations are peaceful. But there will be precautions. That is why the troops are here--to guarantee a safe and secure environment for Aristide's return."

Even Aristide organizers here were aware of the potential danger from a mass of people that could be easily turned into a deadly mob, or be infiltrated by supporters of the military who have sworn never to allow the president to resume office.

Residents of two of the city's largest slums, Carrefour and Cite Soleil, say they have been asked to organize their own neighborhood fetes and stay away from the palace area, where U.S. officials estimate that 300,000 to 800,000 are expected to gather.

Aristide's reception today doubtless will be tumultuous, perhaps even chaotic, as followers greet the man whose meaning to the Haitian masses goes far beyond his position as the nation's only democratically elected president.

"In a country where a tiny elite has always dominated the majority, and the mass of people never had even the hope of a better life, Aristide represented a real new order," a Haitian businesswoman said.

"He is black in a country run by light-skinned people. He is poor where rulers are rich, and his first language is Creole, while the elite speaks French.

"When he tells the people they have the same rights to food, good housing and a just life, they believe him," she said.

It is a belief that has sent thousands of people into the streets during the past week to clean up the rotting piles of garbage and slime that have made Port-au-Prince a fetid center of stink and disease.

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