'Never again must a drop of blood be shed': Haiti's poor hear plea from their returning priest

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned in triumph to Haiti yesterday promising no vengeance or retaliation against those who ousted him from power three years ago. He said: 'Never, never, never again must a drop of blood be shed.'

Standing on the steps of the presidential palace behind a shield of bulletproof glass President Aristide called on Haitians to co-operate with American troops. He thanked the US and the international community for returning democracy to Haiti and asked all Haitians on both right and left to come together to end the misery of the country, promising that if all co-operated the 'load would not be heavy'.

Father Aristide had flown to Port-au-Prince from Washington where he has spent the last three years in exile. He was accompanied by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were dancing in the streets as a United States helicopter flew their President to the white-domed presidential palace where he was handcuffed and almost killed by soldiers in a military uprising three years ago.

US Sheridan tanks, their stubby guns pointing down the main thoroughfares and shielded from the crowds by rolls of razor wire, guarded every intersection, even though the old regime has largely evaporated. Haitians eagerly snatched up leaflets, thrown by US soldiers from their armoured vehicles, which cited Fr Aristide's appeal for reconciliation.

'Twoweeks ago you could have got killed just for having one of those,' remarked one Haitian. But as celebrations started across the city, the only sign of the much-feared Haitian police was a piece of spontaneous theatre in Capois Street, where a man in police uniform was pretending to be Lt-Col Michel Francois, the former Port-au-Prince police chief and presumed death squad leader.

In Belair, the oldest quarter of the city, the young men were running in formation in a comical imitation of the volunteers raised by the army commander, General Raoul Cedras, now in exile in Panama. 'One two, one two, rice and cabbage where are you?' they chanted as they ran, rice and cabbage being the nickname of the volunteers, based on the food ration they were given. So far there has been little of sign of a determination to settle scores. In Belair, three so- called attaches - paramilitary gunmen who worked for the military regime - were found lynched three days ago. But Jean Mario, a local professional sign-painter who was painting the face of Fr Aristide on a wall, said: 'All the attaches have fled to the countryside.'

Further up the street he had painted another Aristide face, 10 times life size, accompanied by a red rooster, the symbol of Fr Aristide's political movement. A balloon issuing from its beak said in Creole: 'Things must change.'

Will the return of Fr Aristide really improve the lives of the 6 million Haitians, the poorest people in the hemisphere, with an average income of dollars 346 ( pounds 218) a year? Fearful of social change, the US embassy spent many years trying to limit Fr Aristide's influence. In the 1990 presidential election, its preferred candidate was Marc Bazin, an amiable former World Bank official, who won 14 per cent of the vote, against 67 per cent for Fr Aristide.

Embassy officials suspected the radicalism of the priest from St Jean Bosco, the pretty yellow and white church on the edge of the La Saline slum, which attaches burnt with petrol when they killed 13 of his congregation in 1988.

He was a proponent of 'liberation theology' and the leader of the Ti Legliz - the Little Church - which developed religious and self-help communities in the 1970s.

'The rich of my country, a tiny percentage of our population,' Fr Aristide wrote, 'sit at a vast table covered in white damask and overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen and countrywomen are crowded under that table, hunched over in the dirt, and starving. It is a violent situation, and one day the people under that table will rise up in righteousness, and knock the table of privilege over and take what rightfully belongs to them.'

This agenda is exactly what the US wants to avoid. The US forces yesterday made no effort to conceal the fact that the Haitian capital and presidential palace were firmly under their control. Despite the close co- operation between the US and the incoming Aristide government there is growing tension between the two sides over the remodelling of the Haitian security forces. In private Aristide officials are concerned that the US wants to take the final say on vetting members of a future Haitian army and police out of the hands of the new government. In Washington, officials persuaded Fr Aristide to agree to an dollars 800m neo-liberal reform plan, under which electricity and other public services would be privatised.

But in Haiti, where the government is effectively bankrupt, a little aid will go a long way. With a minimum of equipment and fuel, US Army engineers have started to supply electricity to parts of Port-au-Prince that have not seen artificial light for three years.

For the half-starved people who live in and on the enormous rubbish dump by the waterfront, US intervention has already brought benefits. Maunade Jacques, who has lived for two years among the festering heaps of rubbish, holds up a brown plastic bag marked 'Sugar' that was once part of the ration pack of a US soldier. 'Every day we are finding food like chicken and ham that the Americans have thrown away,' he said.

The entire Haitian capital ground to a halt yesterday as people gathered to listen to Fr Aristide's speech. Streets that are normally among the most crowded in the world were completely empty. Ordinary Haitians, responding to the speech, said that whatever the future held they believed that the era of death squads was over.

(Photograph omitted)