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Aristide's Exile in Jamaica Marked by Silence -- Thus Far

Ex-Haitian leader is said to be spending time with family. But some fear he plans to 'stir things up.'

March 24, 2004|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

GOLDEN GROVE, Jamaica — Once again, he is in exile, surrounded by a handful of true believers: his wife, his young daughters, his brother-in-law, a bodyguard.

Less than a month ago, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was president of Haiti. Then he stepped on a plane, placing his fate in the hands of others, traveling to Africa and now back to the Caribbean. When allowed to speak, he first denounced the United States for staging a "coup d'etat," then said the Americans had tricked him into leaving.

But since March 15, when he arrived in Jamaica, he has been, in effect, silenced. His government-appointed spokesman, Huntley Medley, says the 50-year-old is engaged in contemplative acts, such as writing.

"He is taking time to spend with his family," Medley said.

Aristide is living near this central Jamaican town in a sprawling compound that once belonged to a mining magnate. His two-story, hilltop home -- known to locals as "the Big House" -- overlooks mountains and cow pastures. Haiti is 150 miles away. One might imagine the sea breeze swaying the palms in the frontyard is the same one kissing the shores near Port-au-Prince.

Depending on one's point of view, the nearsighted man gazing from the windows of the Big House is either a villainous trickster or the only legitimate leader of Haiti.

People who have known Aristide since the days he was a slum priest fighting Haitian military rule say his talents as an orator, his unwillingness to compromise and an unshakable belief in his own messianic role in Haitian history -- qualities on display throughout his failed presidency -- are better suited to the role of "exiled statesman" than they are to being a ruler.

"In Creole they say, lap fe desod, which means 'he makes trouble,' " said one longtime Haiti observer. "That's what he's gone to Jamaica to do. To stir things up. He is a man who shines in the opposition."

Once upon a time, he urged his supporters to resist the violence of the Tontons Macoutes thugs of Haiti's Duvalier family dictatorship with machetes and any other weapon at hand. He named his movement Lavalas, Creole for "flash flood," an image meant to evoke the sweeping away of the old, corrupt regime.

Now, back in Haiti, the ranks of his followers are dwindling.

"He was a great leader of his country," the Haiti observer said, "but he allowed his ambition to destroy him."

Those who still believe that Aristide came to free Haiti's poor are waiting to hear from the man who rose from deepest poverty to become the country's first democratically elected leader.

But since stepping on the runway at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston last week, Aristide's only statements have been written declarations issued by the government information office.

"I want to assure the people of Jamaica that I would never use the kind hospitality provided by my brothers and sisters here in Jamaica to do anything that is political or that could hinder the process of peace in my beloved country of Haiti," Aristide said in a statement released March 17 by the Jamaican government after he met privately with Prime Minister P.J. Patterson.

On the same day, interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue was forming a mostly nonpartisan Cabinet that excluded members of Aristide's Lavalas movement. But Aristide said nothing about that or any other recent development in Haiti. "Clearly, pressure is being applied," said Clinton Hutton, a professor of government at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. "I don't see any reason for him not to have a major press conference."

Aristide's statements before arriving in Jamaica succeeded in convincing many here, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, that his ouster was illegitimate and that the U.S. had played a dark, behind-the-scenes role.

"His departure [from Haiti] took place under a cloud of uncertainty," Hutton said. "There was no indication he was willing to leave."

In several interviews since he fled Haiti on Feb. 29, Aristide has said he did not know where a U.S. security detail was taking him on his last day in the country -- it turned out that they were headed for the airport. Once there, he found that he was surrounded by U.S. Marines and an aircraft was waiting. He said he felt he had no choice but to leave.

"I didn't resign," Aristide told Amy Goodman of the "Democracy Now" program on Pacifica Radio, which operates five U.S. stations, including KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles. "What some people call 'resignation' is a new coup d'etat.... They broke the constitutional order by using force to have me out of the country."

Aristide said he was unaware his destination would be the Central African Republic until shortly before the plane landed there. In an interview with CNN, he accused that country of holding him hostage. Longtime Aristide detractors such as James Morrell of the Haiti Democracy Project were not impressed.

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