By Leigh Dix
and Peter Devereux
MANAGUA — Ranked among the 25 poorest nations on earth, the small Caribbean country of Haiti elected, in late 1990, a leftist priest as president. Jean Bertrand Aristide received the presidential sash from the hands of a poor peasant woman on February 7, 1991.
His victory and Haiti's fledgling democracy were short-lived. Just seven months later, Aristide was forced to flee the country by a bloody military coup which has left 3000 missing and 40,000 displaced.
From June 5 to 8 Aristide was in Nicaragua to press the Organisation of American States assembly to apply stronger sanctions against Haiti's military leaders. But he added, "I also came to visit a people whose revolution and struggle for liberation have deeply inspired me, a revolution by those not prepared to live on their knees".
The 37-year-old priest won the elections of December 16, 1990, completely devastating his 11 rivals, including US-supported candidate Marc Bazin (former sub-director of the World bank), who received only 14% of the votes compared to Aristide's 67%. Ironically, during Aristide's visit came news that Bazin had just resigned from the post of "prime minister", the position to which he was appointed last June by the military.
Many believe the coup d'etat of September 30, 1991, was coveted by the US embassy in Port-au-Prince and carried out for it by the army of Haiti. The nomination of Marc Bazin could be interpreted as part of the plan.
Aristide pressed the OAS for stronger international action to allow him to return. "If they can see the small boats that carry the political refugees, why
is it that they can't see the boats that carry the oil?", Aristide demanded, referring to the refusal of the international community to attend to the Haitian refugees, but at the same time declining to implement serious sanctions on essential supplies.
The violent repression that began with the coup continues today. According to a statement issued last month by the Haitian Religious Conference, "the increase in the
cost of living is starving the population, while a minority bathes in wealth thanks to the coup d'etat, corruption, and contraband. At least five people disappear every day around the country. The bodies of some of them are recovered, while no trace is found of others."
The deposed president said his reinstatement would also mean liberation for the army from the manipulation and oppression of the perpetrators of the coup. Aristide said he maintains contact with loyal elements of the army thanks to the "marriage" he forged between the army and the people while in office.
Meanwhile, he remains in exile in the United States, a situation which has been criticised by various groups within Haiti.
"Mr President, the hand which the American government extends to you is covered with the blood of innocents, the blood of our brothers, the blood of our comrades, the blood of the people." In these terms, the Pati Louvri Barye (Open Gate Party) of Renaud Bernardin, in an open letter dated May 19, recommends to Aristide to make "a correction in the current strategy".
The group refers to the latest US proposal, for the return of Aristide with the deployment of an international police force. Almost all sides have rejected this plan, fearing the real role of the police mission.
However, even if the people of Haiti can reinstate their fragile democracy, the challenges are still enormous. Current production is perilously low. Illiteracy is around 80%, health is poor, and inflation is rampant. The country is an ecological disaster.
According to Aristide, the international community has promised US$1000 million over five years for the reconstruction of Haiti once he is reinstated.
Aristide says, "When human richness is respected we begin to develop ourselves ... In our seven months in power we moved from misery to poverty with dignity, without a cent from outside. We saw the Haitian people happy because the oxygen of justice was arriving."
It is an unusual political aim to aspire to "poverty with dignity". Perhaps, with the aid of sanctions, Aristide and the movement that backed him may again have
the opportunity to achieve it.