Priest bites the bullet of murderous opposition: Having survived assassination attempts, Haiti's exiled president is still preaching the theology of liberation, writes Patrick Cockburn

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'I HEARD a sound like a gun being fired. And of course it was the sound of a gun being fired,' recalls Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the diminutive 40-year-old Catholic priest who is the elected president of Haiti. 'There were three men in hats, wearing white, revolvers in hand, shooting in different directions. I felt calm, and I stood there, and I saw the gun pointed at me and I saw the smoke coming from the gun and I heard the noise of the bullets. He missed me.'

This was in 1987 when Fr Aristide had been sent by his order to a rural parish to get him away from his supporters in the slums of Port-au-Prince. It was not the last attempt to kill him. A year later only last- minute hesitation by gunmen who stormed his little yellow church of St Jean Bosco as he started his sermon saved his life. Thirteen of his congregation were shot or hacked to death with machetes as men with red arm bands - reputedly each was paid dollars 7 ( pounds 4.60) and a bottle of rum for the attack - ransacked the church.

The military government and its shadowy bands of gunmen probably regret today that they did not kill Fr Aristide then, or when they overthrew him in a coup in which at least 1,500 were killed in 1991. As the conflict in Haiti has escalated over the past month it has become evident that Fr Aristide is the critical figure in the country. Elected president with 67 per cent of the vote in 1990, he is probably more popular now. The violence with which all signs of sympathy for Fr Aristide are crushed by the army shows they still fear him. Haitian soldiers who see a poster with Fr Aristide on it normally seize the first passerby and force him to eat the paper.

Born in 1953 the son of a farmer, Fr Aristide's entire life has been intertwined with the Catholic church. In a country where the average annual pay is dollars 150 ( pounds 98) and the state provides nothing, the church provides such education and medical services as are available. Fr Aristide, a star pupil of the Salesian order, took a degree in psychology, studied in Israel, Canada and England and speaks six languages.

But it was in Creole - the language of the Haitian masses - that he addressed the poor of Port-au-Prince after he was ordained in 1982. 'Jesus wasn't a priest,' he said. '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.'

Wealth is highly concentrated in Haiti and the hatred between rich and poor is exacerbated by race. Fr Aristide is black like 90 per cent of the six million Haitians, but for 200 years political power has been largely in the hands of mulattoes.

The radical message in Fr Aristide's sermons was simple enough. in future he said that everybody in Haiti 'would sit around the table, instead of just a few, with the rest underneath, catching the crumbs'. Denounced by the regime as a Communist, and regarded with suspicion by the United States embassy, Fr Aristide was expelled by his own order.

Even so there were many radical priests in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s. If the army and the gangs that kill on its orders had seen the threat he posed to their existence he would not have survived. As it was they underestimated him right up to the moment when he became a surprise candidate in the 1990 presidential election, supported by a movement called Lavalas, meaning 'flash flood' in Creole.

The achievements of his government were limited enough in the few months he was in power. But the period has entered Haitian mythology as a golden era because the rule of the paramilitary bosses and the Tonton Macoutes was lifted briefly. People stopped trying to reach Florida in open boats. But the old regime never really accepted the election. Five days before his inauguration somebody - presumably Macoutes - set fire to an orphanage he had set up for 200 street children and burnt four of them to death.

The surprise was not the coup in 1991 but that the military ever agreed to let him return. Had George Bush won the US presidential election last year then General Raoul Cedras, the army commander, and Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Francois, the head of the Port-au-Prince police, would probably not have offered any concessions to Fr Aristide. But following the election of Bill Clinton, General Cedras and Fr Aristide, under intense United Nations and US pressure, signed an agreement on 3 July under which Fr Aristide was to return on 30 October and General Cedras and Colonel Francois retire from the army in return for an amnesty. Possibly General Cedras thought that Fr Aristide could be isolated in the white- domed presidential palace. If so he has evidently changed his mind.

(Photograph omitted)