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Haiti measures progress one step at a time

Special Report Writer

In Haiti, where bloody divisions and rampant corruption has marked so much recent history, progress is measured in small steps.

While reforms are moving slowly "due to the corruption in the judicial system," it is "a major accomplishment that people are no longer killing each other," former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide told NCR in an exclusive interview at his hotel here Aug. 8.

"What we have now must be seen in the light of where we have been," the former president said, recalling the 5,000 lives lost to violence in the years after he was toppled in a Sept. 29, 1991, coup and forced into a three-year exile.

Haiti's former president remains optimistic despite reports by some members of the U.S. Congress that Haiti is slipping into anarchy or at best is at a political impasse since April elections and the resignation June 9 of its Premier Rosny Smarth.

Although he acknowledged sporadic acts of violence, the social order is "stable," he said. The 7,000 soldiers who controlled 40 percent of the national budget are gone and the police force is "protecting the lives of all Haitians" despite making some "expected mistakes," Aristide said.

The former president's own efforts to create a "Justice and Truth Commission" have gone nowhere, he admitted. The voluminous report he submitted to his successor, President Rene Preval, on Feb. 6, 1996, has been reproduced in 50 copies, but the government has yet to act on its recommendations, he said.

Aristide said that "a state of law" exists in Haiti, that the government rejects violence and vengeance as well as impunity for past corruption. "Haiti needs the truth," he said.

Those in the recent Congressional delegation to Haiti think it also needs a new prime minister, and some are calling for new elections after a mere 5 percent turnout in April. On July 26 Preval named agronomist Ericq Pierre as premier-designate. The former technician of the International Development Bank is an ardent supporter of privatization.

Aristide, who believes that both the poor of his nation as well as the business community must dialogue before privatization occurs, would not comment on Pierre's nomination. "Parliament needs to approve him and my voice can influence," he said, adding that if half the legislators OK Pierre, he could take office by September.

Aristide rejected the image of Haitians as violent and armed. "We are a nonviolent people who have suffered from the institutional violence of the army and from those who have economic power." With the average per capita income of 7 million Haitians at $250 per year, "people will buy food, not weapons."

But he called it "a joke" to think that Haitians have been disarmed. "There has been no political will by my government to disarm the thugs. I don't see any disarmament soon."

Aristide faulted UN peacekeepers who "haven't seen any priority" for collecting weapons, despite UN Resolution 940, which endorses disarmament, he said.

In late July, the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended a four-month extension, to Nov. 31, for U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti.

Aristide said his nation "must be ready to assume responsibility for its own security and to keep peace with its police force." But he acknowledged that there is "a collective trauma in the collective mind" that resurfaces for many when they see a uniform.

Jobs, justice and economic security are the only defense against a return to violence, he said. The government release of 200,000 acres of state land for cultivation should help, he said. Noting that Haiti was the fifth largest mango producer in the world and the second largest supplier of mangoes to the United States, he called for greater focus on agriculture to ensure economic growth.

He said his Foundation for Democracy has created housing for 12,000 street children, has given both boys and girls their own schools, a radio station, job training and a car wash that earns them pocket money. Members of the co-op can obtain food and public transportation at two-thirds of the market price, he said.

Aristide said the foundation takes its lead from Acts 4:32 -- "What belongs to one, belongs to all," a merger of "the experience of faith and the experience of capital."

Although he has been laicized and released from his Salesian vows, "I am always a Salesian in spirit and spirituality," he said. A new father at age 44, Aristide bounced off the sofa when speaking of daughter Christine, born in November.

While he collects "a token pension" as former president, Aristide said that most of his income comes from speaking engagements. He has already appeared at 12 U.S. universities and collected "too many" honorary degrees. His fall calendar is inked with trips to Finland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Will he ever reoccupy the Presidential Palace, from which he was evicted at 3 a.m. six years ago? "It's not impossible," he concedes, noting that he learned only two months before the December 1990 election that brought him to power that he was to be a candidate.

For now, the diminutive man in the business suit and gold wire-rimmed glasses looks more a roving ambassador and commissioner of tourism than the man millions followed and others sought to murder.

On his first day in Washington, he spoke by phone for 30 minutes with Preval, who was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Later that day he spent 90 minutes with Pax Christi national and international leaders as well as an hour with children at a Pax Christi youth camp.

"Dialogue and consensus between rich and poor" is Aristide's recipe for democracy in Haiti. Those for and against privatization must sit at the same table together, he said.

In the Haitian church, he singled out Bishop Willy Romelus of Jeremie as a man "who listens to the voice of the people -- a must for those who will accompany the people," he said.

Aristide noted that Haiti has two faces, but lamented that the one most often seen is that of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, awash in coups and bloodshed. The second face -- that of "the richest nation in the world, where there is no suicide and where solidarity is part of our culture -- it's in our anthropological sap" but mostly missed by the media, he said, and "so is our humanity."

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997