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Aristide keeps hopes of the people high

WASHINGTON - Pere Lebrun is one of the most feared names in Haiti, and he may put in an appearance if the military regime is overthrown by a US invasion and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns, writes Patrick Cockburn. This is surprising, as he is an obscure businessman who once sold tyres and whose advertising shows a smiling black face sticking through a tyre.

The significance of Pere Lebrun is that his name became shorthand for lynching supporters of the Haitian military governments by placing tyres filled with petrol around their necks and setting them alight. The method of execution, pioneered in South Africa, has come to symbolise the possibility of the slaughter of members of the old regime after its overthrow.

The US wants to avoid this. With uncertain public and political support, President Bill Clinton needs an efficient invasion and the restoration of Fr Aristide. It is not easy. Republicans are apopleptic at the idea of a US expeditionary force being deployed to restore a left-wing populist who blames the US for many of his country's ills.

A member of the Salesian order, Fr Aristide told the poor of Port-au-Prince after he was ordained in 1982: 'Jesus wasn't a priest. He was a poor man fighting for justice, spending his life with people healing the sick. That is the theology of liberation and we just put it into practice.' Born the son of a farmer in 1953, Fr Aristide took this picture of Jesus literally and tried to follow the same course in the capital's slums.

Fr Aristide, who speaks six languages, was at first the star of the Salesians. He took a degree in psychology and studied in Israel, Canada and England. He survived at least two attempts to kill him. In 1987, three gunmen fired at him but missed. The following year, in Port-au-Prince, there was an attack on his church of St Jean Bosco in which 13 of his congregation were shot or hacked to death.

Elected president in 1990, with 67 per cent of the vote, he carried out few radical reforms during his brief tenure of power. But in Haiti the old regime - military and civilian - wanted no change at all. The following year he was overthrown and fled to the US. His political strategy in Washington has resembled that of General Charles de Gaulle in London after the fall of France - intent on his return but angering his sponsors in the US government by refusing to become a client.

In Haiti he founded the Lavalas (meaning flash flood in Creole) movement but his supporters have little real organisation. It has been decimated by the government death squads who have targeted his supporters. But it is difficult to find anybody outside the elite who does not support him. He remains the messianic symbol of hope for the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.