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The World | ARISTIDE FLEES HAITI

Aristide Flees Haiti for Exile

First Peacekeeping Troops Arrive as Interim Leader Calls for Calm

March 01, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. Marines arrived Sunday night to secure this ravaged island nation, hours after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide succumbed to international pressure and fled an armed revolt that had left most of Haiti under rebel control.

Aristide, who arrived early today in the Central African Republic, left behind chaos and uncertainty in a nation more poor and more divided than when he became Haiti's first democratically elected president in 1990. It was Aristide's second time in exile.

The country's chief justice was sworn in as Haiti's interim leader and immediately appealed for calm after riots erupted among angry Aristide supporters who roamed the streets armed with old rifles, pistols, machetes and sticks.

At the White House, President Bush, who authorized the Marine deployment, called Aristide's departure "the beginning of a new chapter."

"I would urge the people of Haiti to reject violence, to give this break from the past a chance to work. And the United States is prepared to help," Bush said.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council, at an emergency meeting Sunday night, authorized international troops to stabilize the country and voted to create a U.N. peacekeeping force to take over in three months. France sent 120 of its troops stationed in the French West Indies, and Canada was also planning to dispatch soldiers.

The message to the Haitian people, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, is "that the international community has not forgotten them. We understand their need and we are standing by them in their hour of need. And the international community will do whatever it can to help stabilize the situation. I know some of them think it is a bit late, but ... it is better late than never."

Police announced a 6-p.m.-to-6-a.m. curfew, although it remained uncertain how effectively they could enforce it with droves of law enforcement officers having deserted their posts amid widespread lawlessness. Haiti has no army; it was disbanded in 1995 by Aristide.

"I'm begging you to keep calm. No one should take justice into his own hands," urged Haiti's Supreme Court chief justice, Boniface Alexandre, after he was sworn in by Aristide's prime minister.

Alexandre, who is in his 60s, has a reputation for honesty. He was appointed chief justice by Aristide 10 years after becoming a member of the Supreme Court in 1990.

Aristide, in a resignation letter left behind and read by Prime Minister Yvon Neptune two hours after his furtive departure, made clear he resented being driven out but said he left to avoid more bloodshed. "The constitution must not drown in the blood of the Haitian people," he said.

For weeks, Aristide had insisted on fulfilling the last two years of his term despite pressure from armed rebels and political rivals who charged that the former priest had turned into a corrupt and repressive leader.

Aristide's rule disappointed many poor Haitians who voted for the former priest in the hope that he would lead this nation of 8.5 million out of despair.

As a fighter for the poorest of the poor in this desperate country, Aristide built a reputation for intellect and compassion. In the 1990 election, he captured roughly two-thirds of the popular vote in a field of more than a dozen candidates.

But his stay in the presidency lasted less than a year before the Haitian military forced him into exile, principally in the U.S., where he was a ceaseless advocate for intervention in Haiti. By 1994, the Clinton administration agreed to restore Aristide, sending about 20,000 troops to the nation. Violence was averted when the key members of the junta fled and Aristide returned to the presidential office.

A close aide succeeded him as president in 1996, but Aristide won reelection in 2000 in voting boycotted by the opposition. Foreign aid dwindled, and the economy faltered.

As the economic situation plunged, so did Aristide's popularity. As a number of dictators before him, Aristide became more autocratic and human rights advocates stepped up their criticism, saying he had resorted to violence against foes. One of the people reportedly killed was a gang leader whose colleagues launched the offensive that led to Sunday's ouster.

There were also reports that Aristide's government received bribes from drug dealers using Haiti as a safe haven to move their contraband to the U.S. Aristide, according to some testimony, personally benefited from the deals. The former president has denied those charges.

But it was the government's inability to maintain security that was Aristide's biggest problem. As rebels marched across the nation, his poorly armed police fled or joined the uprising. The capital was racked by armed gangs supporting the president, but they incited looting and anarchy.

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