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Aristide's Populist Appeal Dwindles in Haiti

Once an inspiration to a nation of have-nots, the president has built a legacy of dashed hopes and a reputation for illicit gain.

November 29, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — No trace of extraordinary vision appears on the face of the bespectacled 13-year-old in the back row of a 1966 class picture from the Salesian Seminary in Cap Haitien.

Nor was the demure young priest seen as particularly ambitious as he churned out political leaflets two decades later in the underground movement to oust dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Only after Duvalier was driven into exile in 1986 and some hope for democracy appeared on the horizon did Haitians see the political agenda in the cleric's moving oration as he stirred a nation of have-nots to choose him as their first democratically elected leader.

No one seems to know whether President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever intended to lead his people out of the abject poverty that once consumed his own life. The more charitable among his detractors impute initial good intentions but say the allure of wealth and power led him astray somewhere between the pulpit and the presidential palace.

In city slums, in the famished countryside, among the supporters of democracy who cheered his rise to power, it is now difficult to find even a flicker of the hope once invested in this enigmatic figure.

Aristide has amassed a legacy that can best be termed a chronicle of dashed expectations. A former Roman Catholic priest turned husband, father and autocrat, he has presided over the decline of Haiti from a poor nation of 8 million, repressed for three decades under Duvalier and his father -- Francois, known as "Papa Doc" -- to an even poorer wreck of a nation gripped by hunger, hopelessness, disease and gang warfare.

More than half the population is illiterate. Unemployment afflicts 70% of the work force. Haiti's rate of HIV and AIDS is the world's highest outside sub-Saharan Africa. Human rights groups accuse the 50-year-old Aristide of resorting to violence to stay in power, and former constituents say he has pocketed his share of billions in drug money for having his security forces look the other way.

Last month, Transparency International, the Berlin-based government watchdog agency, rated Haiti the third-most-corrupt country in the world, outdone on the 133-nation list only by Bangladesh and Nigeria.

"The problem is that the Haitian people have this belief in a messiah -- someone who will come along and solve all our problems," said Jean-Picard Byron, head of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations. "What occurred was a mirror effect. The people wanted a messiah, and Aristide started seeing that image in his reflection."

In a bow to populist sentiment, Aristide elevated the Creole language from its underclass status and legalized the voodoo religion practiced by 80% of Haitians. But those moves have been eclipsed by actions that have alienated international lenders, driven away foreign investment and brought the country to the brink of a governance crisis because of a failure to organize free and fair elections.

The international community's withholding of crucial loans and aid to Haiti has not compelled Aristide's government to fulfill any of the conditions set by the Organization of American States a year ago to guarantee political opponents a safe environment for campaigning. Elections that were to be held by the end of this year are at least four months away, even by the optimistic calculations of Aristide's Lavalas Family party.

Early this month, the new U.S. ambassador here, James Foley, broke Washington's silence on the political impasse. "Security has much deteriorated in recent weeks," he said, and the Aristide government was failing to live up to its commitments.

The president's shrinking coterie of supporters accuse foreign critics of defecting to the side of the opposition.

At the presidential palace, a white, colonial-style compound in the only part of the capital with verdant parks and roads nearly free of potholes, Aristide's chief of staff casts opponents' accusations as evidence that they fear failure if they take part in elections.

"Some people here are afraid of the idea of one man, one vote," Jean-Claude Desgranges said. "They don't have any connection with the countryside, and it would be difficult for them to be able to win the election."

How a preacher from the slums who galvanized a dispirited nation upon his landslide electoral victory 13 years ago could have so failed to raise living standards in the hemisphere's poorest nation is a question asked widely -- and usually answered with the same disdainful conclusion.

"It's part of the psychology of people from the lower echelons of society," said Father Joseph Simon, who taught Aristide for three years at the seminary in Cap Haitien. "Once they go up in the world, they forget where they came from."

The priest, who runs a shelter for street kids in the capital, remembers a bright student who was both a follower and a leader, surrounding himself with beholden peers and, memorably, taking in a pet rooster.

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