Profile: A proud priest's progress: Jean-Bertrand Aristide: In opposition electrifying, in power naive. David Usborne on Haiti's returning President

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The Independent Online
LAST Tuesday morning, more than a day after Jimmy Carter negotiated his agreement with Haiti's military regime, there was still no word from the small apartment in Washington's Chinatown. The Haitian generals had agreed to stand down, if not to depart; American troops would not have to go ashore fighting; but Aristide in his apartment did not rejoice. The silence was too much for quite a few people on Capitol Hill. 'How dare that impertinent man take objection?' snapped one among many disgusted senators.

Not for the first time in his exile as Haiti's deposed President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide had upset his hosts.

They thought the Carter deal reasonable. It minimised the risk of bloodshed and foresaw the return of Aristide to his capital within 30 days. He took a different view. Not only had the former US president failed to ensure the immediate departure of the generals from Haiti, he had actually implied that they were honourable.

On Wednesday, however, after intense lobbying by President Bill Clinton's most senior officials, Aristide accepted his part in a priceless political pantomime on the steps of the Pentagon. In return for a 21-gun salute and a turn-out of all the top US military brass, he finally endorsed the agreement. More importantly, for the Clinton administration, he explicity said 'thank you' - three times.

Barring hitches, therefore, Aristide's unhappy exile, which has lasted nearly three years, will soon be over. Within days, certainly before 15 October, he will be escorted by the US military back to the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. When it happens, the streets of the Haitian capital will be jammed by a million delirious people cheering the return of 'Titid', the Creole name for the man also known as the Prophet. In Washington, few will mourn his leaving.

ARISTIDE'S relationship with his protectors was fraught from the beginning. His unrelenting attachment to 'truth and justice' has sometimes seemed almost contrived to drive those harbouring him to distraction. He would have none of it, for instance, when the Clinton administration sought his help last spring to discourage a renewed exodus of Haitian boat-people. His people, he countered, were leaving because they were fleeing a 'burning house'. Moreover, attitudes towards him in Washington have been coloured both by concern about his political leanings - socialist, if not Marxist - and by rumour and innuendo put abroad by his enemies (and not discouraged by the US embassy in Haiti) about his mental health.

A surprisingly slight man, Aristide was born in 1953 in the southern town of Port Salut to a relatively prosperous peasant family. He was sent aged five to a Catholic school run by the Salesian brothers and within a few years was recognised as the brightest in the school. He quickly developed a sense of the evil of Dr Francois Duvalier or 'Papa Doc', who took power in 1957. He said in a recent interview that at the age of nine or 10 'I began to detest the dictator I did not know'.

Adolescence coincided with the rising influence of liberation theology. Most famously articulated at a conference of Latin American Catholic bishops in Medellin, Colombia in 1968, liberation theology - to which Aristide was quickly attracted and remains committed to today - required that the Church show a 'preferential option' for the poor. It was a notion that was embraced by Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements in many Latin countries at the time and it found its place in Haiti with the creation of a progressive wing of the Catholic Church. The 'Ti Legliz', or small church, was organised around 'base communities', dedicated to helping the underclass, for example by providing shelter for the most destitute.

Detecting a revolutionary spirit that might cause them trouble, the Salesians in 1979 sent Aristide on a foreign tour that lasted almost six years, with only one brief interruption in the summer of 1982, when he was ordained as a priest in the Salesian Order. The travels took him to Israel, where he learnt Hebrew and Arabic - he is now said to speak 12 languages - and to Montreal, where he studied philosophy and psychology. It was only on his return to Haiti again in 1985 - when the reign of Papa Doc's son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was already showing signs of collapse - that Aristide began to emerge as a trouble-maker and leader. Soon, cables from the US embassy began to speak of Aristide the 'firebrand'.

Aristide the priest thrust himself forward as the protector of the poor and the debunker of the ruling rich. He did so at great personal risk - the Tontons Macoutes (secret police) were practised at murdering troublesome priests - and against the growing opprobrium of the bishops, who had mostly been appointed by Papa Doc. He openly called Baby Doc 'Satan', and in one electrifying sermon 10 months before Baby Doc's flight to France, reviled the 'malevolent regime' and its 'gluttonous pillaging'. Nor did he spare his superiors, including the Pope, whom he described as nothing more than the chief executive of a sprawling business empire.

His enemies tried to kill him - there have been five known assassination attempts. He wrote of the first, in 1986, in his book, In the Parish of the Poor. 'Suddenly I saw a man appear before me with a revolver trained on me. I didn't know if he was going to shoot me, or what he was going to do with it. But the way I felt about it then - as I still do, years after - was that because of my temperament, my conviction, my faith, my duty and my responsibility, if I were to die, let me die in my place, where I belong. Therefore I just sat there, waiting, and he pointed the revolver at me, and then - miracle, miracle - he opened it, took out the bullets, and handed the gun and the bullets to me.'

OUT OF THIS the legend of Titid was born. It grew more potent in 1988 when the Tontons Macoutes stormed his church, St Jean Bosco, and massacred at least 13 of his congregation and wounded 70 others, but missed their intended victim. In the same year the Salesians expelled him from their order. His reputation was merely enhanced.

In 1990, he was elected Haiti's President with 67 per cent of the vote. He made sweeping changes in the power structure, most notably eliminating the rural chiefs who had overseen the terrorising of the peasantry and the urban poor. He also chose a cabinet based on merit rather than influence. The coalition that helped him get elected fell apart. He was seen as naive and earnest, then as zealous. Army officers and businessmen quickly became his opponents.

'It was undoubtedly the least bad period for human rights in Haiti there has been,' said Ian Martin, the former director of a UN human rights mission. In power, Aristide proved much less Marxist than his rhetoric, earning even the approval and the money of the International Monetary Fund. He did not nationalise anything, though he did propose raising the minimum wage from dollars 3 (pounds 1.90) a day to dollars 5.

Tales of his mental instability had been circulating in Port-au-Prince, especially in the privileged suburbs, even before his election. Allegations that he was dependent on drugs and had received psychia tric help in Montreal soon reached the CIA and from there fed into conservative parlours across America and on Capitol Hill. The allegations have since been proven unfounded.

But even Aristide's most ardent supporters are uneasy when asked to explain events on 27 September 1991, hours before the coup that overthrew him. The President, just returned from addressing the United Nations in New York and aware that power was slipping from him, gave a speech on the steps of his palace where he appeared to invite mob justice. Some say his meaning has been confused in translation from Creole, but Aristide at least seemed to approve the use of the 'necklace' - the placing of a burning tyre around the neck - calling it a 'beautiful instrument' that 'smells sweet'.

'He felt the only way to prevent a coup against him was to show the sway of popular violence', suggests Amy Wilentz, who has written about Haiti in The Rainy Season. 'But to me, ultimately, if you can't govern without doing that, you might as well give up.'

When he returns, Aristide should find that his ability to mobilise the masses has grown. The Haitians who cheered the GIs ashore last week were really cheering for the prophet following behind. Old and peeling murals of Aristide's face are being brushed up all around the capital. The name that for three years Haitians have not dared even to utter - Pe Titid - is back on their lips.

Questions will inevitably be asked about Aristide's willingness to learn from experience. Can he compromise? Can he reach out to his opponents? The questions are reflected in the pledge drawn from him by Washington - that when his original five-year term expires in 16 months' time, he will not run again as President.

He may or may not hold good to his word. Whatever the case, the Americans intend to stay around until the elections to make sure he behaves as they think he should.

To those who love him, he is the Mandela of Haiti. And in Haiti, Mandela's healing powers will certainly be required.

(Photograph omitted)