PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After an intense, two-week struggle to co-opt his enemies, consolidate his allies and begin rebuilding a nation in crisis, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Friday did what he has been unable to do since his triumphant return to the Haitian capital two weeks ago.
He went home.
In an intricate U.S. military operation shrouded in secrecy, officials said Aristide left his heavily guarded downtown Presidential Palace for the first time since he returned from exile on Oct. 15, leaving behind the huge U.S. Army security detail--and a convertible sofa that has been his bed for the last two weeks.
Amid continuing concerns for the president's safety--from both assassins' bullets and adoring throngs--a U.S. Army helicopter flew into the presidential compound an hour after a motorcade that included his bulletproof limousine had arrived. But the limousine was empty, a decoy after several days of rehearsal runs. It was the U.S. Army Blackhawk, with an attack helicopter escort, that took Aristide the few miles from a palace that had been looted down to its dirty carpeting by Haiti's departing military regime to his recently renovated suburban villa.
But as Aristide landed at a home now ringed by U.S.-manned machine-gun nests for what U.S. officials and aides said will be a five-day working weekend at home, it was clear that his toughest tasks still lay ahead.
Haiti still has no government and no Cabinet to begin the long process of administering justice and allocating the tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid now available for national reconstruction.
Aristide's appointment of businessman and trusted aide Smarck Michel as prime minister has bogged down in debate in Haiti's often-contentious Parliament.
No additional Cabinet ministers can be appointed until Michel's nomination is confirmed, and few political observers expect the vote until well into next week--after Haiti celebrates its All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day holidays.
Diplomats and political analysts nonetheless have praised Aristide for his cautious approach, his new-found presidential poise and his series of dramatic, conciliatory meetings with political allies and foes alike during his first two weeks in office.
But those analysts, Aristide's critics and even some key supporters said the honeymoon that has left the nation largely at peace and given the priest-turned-politician time to maneuver could soon come to an end.
"There is hope, but there is no time," said veteran Haitian human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeux, who is deputy leader of one of the parties in the fractious pro-Aristide alliance dubbed Lavalas, which is Creole for "tidal wave."
"The most delicate problem now is to not further divide the Aristide family, and it's already divided into four groups. . . . There clearly is a risk they will eat one another and break the Lavalas family into bits. That is one of the great political problems now."
In a move to reunite the loose coalition that helped him win 67% of the popular vote during Haiti's last presidential elections four years ago, Aristide assembled all the pro-democracy parties for a marathon meeting at the palace on Thursday morning.
But Aristide deliberately included at the meeting his political enemies as well.
Among the 15 parties represented were right-wing political leaders who had supported the military coup that overthrew and forced Aristide into exile seven months after he took office.
"We need an opposition to build a democracy," said one Aristide insider, who asked not to be named. "And to make sure it is an effective opposition, President Aristide also has to help them restructure themselves.
"But the big job of Aristide right now is to make all those tendencies within Lavalas into a single political party--before the parliamentary elections in December (1995)."
Human rights activist Bajeux was among the political leaders who attended Thursday morning's meeting. In an interview that afternoon, Bajeux outlined what he and other analysts and politicians see as the most urgent challenges facing Aristide in the days and weeks to come.
Clearly, Bajeux said, they go beyond the crucial legislative elections still scheduled for late this year, an exercise Bajeux said would "drown" the president in political minutiae in the coming weeks and months.
"Justice and jobs," Bajeux said bluntly, echoing the popular priorities that have filled the capital's streets with mobs of job-seekers at the mere rumor that a factory was reopening or the U.S. forces were hiring this week.
Bajeux also gave Aristide high marks for his performance two weeks into a presidency that was restored with the aid of more than 16,000 U.S. combat troops that are still on the ground in Haiti.