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5439: Aristide in Waiting--Sunday NYTIMES Magazine-Wilentz (fwd)

From: Tequila Minsky <tminsky@ix.netcom.com>

  November 5, 2000  Sunday New York Times Magazine

        Aristide in Waiting 

        Haiti's reclusive former president is poised to
        return to power after a five-year absence. The
        country has changed. So has he. By AMY WILENTZ 

           Aristide is giving a
        tour. he's talking
        animatedly about the
        weather and old friends
        and landscaping as he
        makes his way quickly
        around to the front of
        his imposing white
        house in the Tabarre
        suburb of
        Port-au-Prince. We've
        just left the
        air-conditioning of his
        office, and it's hot
        outside, as usual. We're
        walking through the
        broad gardens, where
        palms and banana trees
        grow and where guards lounge on the periphery. And
        then we come to the pool. It's a particularly nice pool,
        with brick trim. 

        "So this is it?" I ask. We are standing at pool's edge.
        The pump is on, and the water is gurgling cheerfully. 

        "Yes," he says, smiling. He opens up his palms in a
        resigned gesture. 

        As if to say: See? It's really just a pool. Which, of
        course, it isn't. The pool, like everything else about
        Aristide these days, is the subject of fevered
        speculation. It's easy to understand why. Since he left
        office five years ago, the 47-year-old former president
        of Haiti has hidden himself away in his big house in
        Tabarre. The man who once led his people from the
        altar of a poor man's church now lives in splendor in
        the suburbs; the man who once never walked without
        being carried along by the crowd now hardly ever
        ventures out; the man who would never shut his mouth
        in public now never opens it. Around this silence, a
        thicket of rumor, gossip and conjecture has grown. 

                          To his supporters (many of
                          whom must trudge miles for
                          drinking water), the pool is the
                          rightful reward for Aristide's
                          willingness to confront the
                          Duvalier regime, for his bravery
                          in facing down one military junta
        after another and for his courage in leading the Haitian
        people to their first free and fair elections. To his foes
        (some of whom have their own swimming pools), it's a
        symbol of his corruption, his abandonment of
        democracy, his hunger for power. To just about
        everyone, Tabarre, with its pool and gardens, is the
        place Aristide has retreated to while Haiti has fallen

        A decade after Aristide won his historic election, life
        in Haiti has hardly improved. Poverty is unrelenting,
        the environment remains degraded, infrastructure,
        where it exists at all, is crumbling. Armed robberies,
        kidnappings and gangland-style killings have all
        increased. Bands of paid thugs pour into the streets of
        Port-au-Prince during tense political moments and slash
        and burn whatever their patrons don't like. Drug
        trafficking, a relatively new entry in the list of Haitian
        woes, has taken on a menacing intensity. And political
        assassinations have become as much a feature of the
        terrain as they were under the military regimes. The
        most flagrant killing was the April murder of Jean
        Dominique, Haiti's best-known journalist and a man of
        unimpeachable integrity, in the parking lot of his radio

        These days, the questions surrounding Aristide have
        taken on a fresh urgency, for in the next elections, now
        scheduled to be held on Nov. 26, it is expected that
        Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected
        president of Haiti, will become president once again. 

           n the old days, back in the mid-1980's, aristide
           received visitors in a dark, sweltering little office
        next to his church, which backed on La Saline, one of
        Port-au-Prince's biggest and most insalubrious
        shantytowns. The man they called Titid wore the
        liberation theologian uniform of the day: either a
        guayabera and jeans or a polyester leisure suit, and a
        digital Casio wristwatch. Mosquitoes would plane
        through the hot air as Aristide -- bug-eyed behind his
        enormous glasses -- made fiery points about economic
        oppression and the future enfranchisement of Haiti's
        illiterate majority while a crowd of orphans and
        widows and youth leaders and foreign journalists stood
        talking just outside the door, waiting their turn. The
        Casio went off every half-hour. 

        Now a receptionist in business clothes welcomes you
        to Chez Aristide. She offers you coffee and escorts you
        to a couch in the waiting room. Politicians, former army
        officers, members of the elite, businessmen, exporters,
        engineers, the national director of prisons -- they all
        flock expectantly to the waiting room at Tabarre.
        Aristide may not leave his house, but that doesn't mean
        he doesn't hold power. (Haiti's elected president, Rene
        Preval, was Aristide's chosen successor.) The
        broad-chested men who plant themselves in the room's
        comfortable chairs are carefully scheduled so that they
        don't see one another, or carefully scheduled,
        depending on Aristide's intentions, so that they do. (One
        wonders: Are they welcomed into the house itself? Do
        they know about the special column in the living room,
        near the hallway to the kitchen, behind which a person
        can stand and hear everything that is said without being
        seen? Aristide showed this to me years ago, just after
        the house was finished.) 

        No journalists are on the ex-presidential horaire,
        however, because Aristide does not speak to the press
        these days. The only reason I am invited is that I wrote
        a book years ago, before he became a politician, that
        included chapters about him, and because we have
        known each other for more than a decade. But I haven't
        been to Haiti in six years, and we haven't spoken in
        four. Before he was killed, even Jean Dominique, once
        a close friend of Aristide's, hadn't spoken to Aristide in
        person in more than four years, except for one brief
        encounter at a party. 

              hen I first see Aristide, he emerges from behind
              a door to take me into his office. It's bright and
        white and very presidential. A huge desk presides over
        the room, and the Haitian flag appears in various
        corners -- even, in miniature form, sprouting from the
        desktop. A closed door separates the office and waiting
        room from the rest of the sprawling house, and
        air-conditioning keeps the hungry bugs at bay.
        Everything is light and breezy and cool. Down near the
        gate to the long driveway, a few nameless
        sweat-soaked sycophants sit in the sun on rickety

        "I welcome everyone
        here," Aristide says,
        extending an arm to take
        in the broad expanse of
        his office. He's wearing
        pleated pants, a tie and
        a crisp white shirt with
        French cuffs and gold
        cuff links. His jacket
        goes on and off. "Not
        only street kids, but
        also politicians and
        businessmen of all
        stripes. I know this one
        or that one may leave
        my office and give an order to have me killed, may
        already have put out a contract, but I receive him with
        respect and courtesy -- even those who participated in
        the coup against me. I cannot nourish a sentiment of
        hatred in my heart. It would be bad for me and bad for
        the country." 

        A close personal adviser interprets: "What Titid is
        telling you is that he's inviting everyone and talking to
        everyone. This means that no one knows with whom he
        is making alliances. This makes all of them nervous.
        They are all competing against each other for his

        Aristide acknowledges this. 

        "Things are better for the country if there is
        competition," he says, smiling broadly. Formerly an
        open socialist, it amuses him to use the language of
        capitalism. "But these people are not used to
        competition. They are used to a situation in which each
        has a monopoly in his own area. I'm trying to change
        that, little by little." 

        His adviser interprets: "What he means is that he's
        keeping them on their toes. They're not sure whom he
        prefers. This way, he ends up on top of the heap, with
        everyone else fighting each other below, instead of
        undermining him." 

                        Or so he hopes. There is a feeling
                        of secrecy about Aristide these
                        days that was not so pronounced
                        back when he was making his name
                        in Haitian politics. Back then, he
                        didn't have much need for
                        Machiavellian ploys. He ascended
                        to power by taking on the regime of
                        Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier
                        in a series of powerful and
                        vituperative sermons that helped
                        fuel a popular revolt. After
                        Duvalier fled the country in 1986,
                        Aristide spent the next four years
                        railing against political candidates
                        and U.S.-inspired elections before
                        finally declaring himself a
                        candidate and winning the
                        U.S.-inspired election of 1990 with
                        67 percent of the vote, to the
                        consternation of pre-Clinton

        It was only after the coup against him -- which came
        less than a year after he was inaugurated -- that Aristide
        really learned to play politics. It is an understatement to
        say that the coup was a devastating blow to his sense of
        his own power and ability to judge character. Members
        of his own presidential guard were involved. The
        attack was masterminded by Raoul Cedras, a man
        Aristide had promoted to head the Haitian Army on the
        advice of the American Embassy. While the coup
        unfolded, Aristide was in the hands of the military, and
        there were moments when it was unclear whether he
        would escape with his life. He talks about the coup as
        if it happened yesterday, and he is still planning and
        plotting to ensure that such a thing never happens again.

        Cedras ran the country for three years while Aristide
        lived in a paralyzed exile in Washington and negotiated
        with the Clinton administration for his return to Haiti.
        After he went back home on a United States government
        plane in 1994, he ruled for only one more year, until the
        constitutional end of his five-year term. "Aristide had
        one year in office, three years in Washington and one
        more year in office," says an official from the ruling
        Lavalas Party, who refused to be named. (Lavalas,
        founded by Aristide, means "flood" or "avalanche" in
        Creole.) "He feels he was denied his full term." This
        accounts for his interference in the day-to-day workings
        of Haitian politics. 

        "His behavior is only natural if you think about it," says
        a foreign diplomat who knows him well and who
        likewise spoke only on condition of anonymity. "When
        he failed to control the army, he had a coup on his
        hands. When his party failed to control the legislature,
        he found his government paralyzed, unable to pass the
        simplest legislation. I think he's determined never to be
        nave again." 

        What the coup has meant for Aristide, psychologically,
        is that he has developed the finely tuned, constant,
        high-level paranoia that is not uncommon among
        Haitian politicians. The definition of a paranoid in
        Haiti? Someone who understands the situation. 

        "I feel it is my responsibility to the Haitian people not
        to expose myself to danger except for good reason,"
        Aristide says, explaining why -- even though he loves
        to socialize -- he doesn't dine at friends' houses, doesn't
        go out into crowds and doesn't make campaign

        There is also the matter of his family. In the old days,
        he was a priest with no wife and kids. Now, his
        Haitian-American wife, Mildred, whom he met during
        his American exile, pops in and out of the office,
        sometimes remaining to participate in our conversation,
        as she does with other visitors, including officials from
        the United States. Halfway through our talk, his
        daughters, Michale and Christine, ages 2 and 4, wander
        in. They are like little candy girls, with bows in their
        hair and charming smiles that look just like their
        father's when he was a tiny boy. They kiss visitors
        hello and goodbye. Aristide talks to them in an adoring
        voice and bends over to hear their whispered replies.
        Their mother stands surveying the scene, her arms
        folded, amused. When the girls leave the house for
        school or for camp, they travel with security. 

        Watching his two little girls traipse up the stairway
        behind his office, I remember that Aristide once told
        me that he thought people with children could never be
        good revolutionaries. 

           n the old days, Aristide had different children.
           Waldeck was one of them, and there is a picture of
        him on the wall of Aristide's waiting room. It's taken
        from a helicopter, and it shows Waldeck smiling
        broadly up from within a huge crowd of people. It was
        taken from one of the U.S. helicopters that flew
        Aristide and the entire government in exile from the
        Port-au-Prince airport to a reception at the palace
        downtown on their first day back. 

        When I was living in Haiti, I used to call Waldeck and
        his friends -- Ayiti, Ti Sonny, Ti Johnny -- my boys.
        Really, though, they were Aristide's boys, four of the
        tiny ringleaders of the pack of orphaned or abandoned
        boys Aristide took under his wing back in the early
        1980's. When I first knew them, they were little, all
        around 10 years old; they played soccer in the
        churchyard with punctured balls that lay flat as
        pancakes until you kicked them; they played marbles
        hunched over in the dust of the dry season, and at night,
        under a single bare bulb, they slapped down poker
        games using incomplete or mismatched decks. Aristide
        said back then that he hoped to build a new Haiti with
        kids like this. They were spirited, intelligent and,
        above all, resourceful. 

        It is hard, though, to imagine building a new Haiti with
        them today. At 18, Ayiti died of tuberculosis. One
        evening two years ago, Ti Johnny was dragged from
        one end of town to another by a gang of drug dealers. In
        the end, they forced him to lie down on the street at the
        Leogane gate, where traffic from one shantytown meets
        traffic from another, and then they shot him through the
        head. By then, Aristide -- now a former president of
        Haiti -- was living in Tabarre, where the boys who
        were left visited him and sometimes swam in his pool. 

        Ti Sonny, a minuscule scamp with a sweet voice and
        big eyes, loyal as a lap dog back in the old days,
        decided last year -- with the help of some of Aristide's
        political rivals -- that he wanted to run for mayor
        against the candidate from Aristide's party. "Can you
        imagine?" Aristide asks, shaking his head, both irritated
        and astonished. "Ti Sonny as mayor?" Ti Sonny lost. 

        Waldeck is the only success story in a country where
        success is a very relative term. Waldeck went to work
        in the Presidential Palace as a messenger. Recently, he
        saw someone there taking money, and he reported it to
        his superiors, he says. Instead of a promotion for his
        honesty, however, he was asked to leave because of
        concerns for his safety. He's out of a job, now, but
        survives with the help of his friends in the palace. He
        says he feels ashamed about receiving help and not
        working, but he has a baby coming and a wife who is
        also unemployed. His life still centers on Aristide, and
        he still hopes that one day, when Titid is back in the
        palace, there will be something for him there too. 

            ene Preval, another aristide protege, has fared
            better than the boys: he's president of the country.
        Aristide's handpicked successor, a former baker, greets
        me on the steps of the enormous tridomed Presidential
        Palace, which squats like a family of whitewashed
        toadstools in the center of Port-au-Prince. Preval leads
        me through the palace's towering formal doors up the
        grand, red-carpeted stairway from the reception room,
        through security, past the official meeting rooms, down
        a marble hallway to an interior staircase and then down
        into the residential wing. He is wearing a guayabera
        and pressed pants. His face has the look of a Pierrot
        clown, perpetually sad, mouth and eyes turned down.
        You can easily imagine a teardrop painted on his cheek.

        "I was just talking to President Aristide on the phone,"
        President Preval says. 

        The two men are close friends. When I was in
        Aristide's office, Preval called. When I was at Preval's,
        Aristide called. But from the market ladies in the
        streets to the American diplomats who make a point of
        visiting Aristide as well as Preval whenever they come
        to Haiti, everyone agrees that Aristide is the man in
        charge and that Preval is just keeping the presidential
        seat warm until his predecessor becomes his successor.

        Down in the living quarters of the palace, the president
        plunks himself onto the couch opposite a big-screen
        television, then hops up to find a tape. "Look at this," he
        says. He squishes himself back into the couch and
        fiddles with the remote. "Look." 

        And there is President Preval himself in a green field
        on the video. The mute is on. He's visiting a
        sugar-cane-processing project, he says. At his side is a
        light-skinned man who looks like an aging French
        movie star. This is Jean Dominique. 

        "There he is," the president says, pointing with the
        remote. There are tears in his eyes. Dominique was
        killed not long after the videotape was made. 

        Preval has not recovered from Dominique's death.
        "This is a lonely job," he says of the presidency, which
        he will leave on Feb. 7, when his term is up. "I counted
        on Jean. He was my closest adviser." He pauses the
        video on a close-up of Dominique's catlike face. "When
        I didn't understand, he was always there to explain." 

        "Who killed him?" I ask. 

        "Who can say?" the president responds. He shakes his
        head. "We are investigating. We don't know." He
        pushes the stop button. 

        "I'll show you what I really like," Preval says, standing
        and heading out of the den. We ride down in an
        elevator with a bodyguard. The president pushes open a
        door, and we are outside on a pathway to the green
        lawn. He leads me out into the gardens. It is dusk.
        Security men accompany us, but at an almost discreet
        distance, like shadows. When the president walks, he
        glides -- it's slow and even. He guides me to a side
        garden at the edge of the palace grounds and points
        down. Below our feet is a rectangular fish pond.
        There's not much light, but as my eyes become
        accustomed to the dark I can see the fish swirling. The
        pond is overpopulated. "Like Haiti," Preval says. A
        smile glimmers across his face. There are more ponds,
        also packed with fish swimming gill to gill. Preval says
        he may build more ponds if he has time before his
        presidency runs out. 

        This is his pisciculture project. "More than a thousand
        fish," he says. He believes the fish ponds will one day
        help feed the Haitian people. Above the ponds are
        chicken coops, with open-wire flooring. This is what
        the fish feed on. 

        ois (Papa Doc) Duvalier had his enemy's decapitated
        head brought to him for a consultation while he was in
        the bath; his son, Baby Doc, killed a baby as a sacrifice
        before he and his money sneaked out of Haiti and into
        exile. Now Aristide is at the center of things, and the
        certainty of his return to the presidency combined with
        his continuing silence have fanned the flames of talk. 

        Tout sa ou we, se pa sa. 

        It's a simple Creole phrase, but telling. Roughly
        translated, it means: Everything you see? That's not it. It
        means that nothing and no one can be taken at face
        value, including Aristide, and including the person who
        says to you Tout sa ou we, se pa sa. This neoproverb
        has a touch of humor about it, but under the
        circumstances, it's not funny. 

        There have been rumors about drug trafficking and
        money laundering and bribery and fraud, all of which
        Aristide refuses to dignify with a response. The
        unsolved murder of Dominique has added to the
        confusion. Though the Preval government has asked Ira
        Kurzban, a Miami lawyer, to head its probe into the
        slaying, the rumor mill has made much of the
        investigation's slowness. 

        When Aristide discusses the killing of his old friend,
        his face is inexpressive, but often when he is angry his
        face goes intensely blank. "Look to the usual suspects,"
        he says, sitting at one end of the couch in his office. By
        this he means the people he used to call the
        bourgeoisie, the economic elite, the power brokers of
        Haiti and their foreign friends, the people who used to
        be suspected when peasant leaders and union types and
        liberation theologians and journalists were killed or
        kidnapped. Of course, today Aristide numbers many of
        those bourgeois and their foreign friends among his
        frequent visitors. He shrugs. "You know how
        treacherous the scene is here," he says. 

            he problem is, Aristide has a unique talent for
            giving his enemies ammunition against him. The
        municipal and legislative elections of May 21 are one
        good example. Aristide's Lavalas Party won the
        balloting in what looked like an overwhelming victory.
        Although foreign officials had predicted a low turnout,
        huge numbers of eligible voters went to the polls. The
        results of the elections: Aristide's party won 72 of the
        83 seats in the chamber of deputies and 18 out of 19
        seats that were up for grabs in the 27-member senate. It
        was a stunning victory that would grant Aristide, should
        he win the presidential election, the first cooperative
        legislature since his party came to power in 1990. 

        But tout sa ou we, se pa sa. 

        The Haitian electoral council, whose personnel were
        overwhelmingly Lavalas, miscalculated the balloting.
        Nine candidates had questionable victories. It would
        have been easy to admit the mistake and make some
        kind of immediate rectification, perhaps demanding that
        all such candidates participate in a runoff. 

        But herein lies the mystery of Aristide. Citing concerns
        about constitutionality and Haiti's sovereignty, he
        seemed to scoff at the idea of putting those candidates
        up for the runoff, or of redoing the vote, even though the
        victory would have no doubt gone to Lavalas, though
        probably not on so grand a scale. 

        Aristide missed the point, and with his refusal to
        rethink the results, he handed his political rivals a great
        strategic advantage. Those elections have since been
        deemed fraudulent. As a result, the Organization of
        American States and the United States have -- for now
        -- abandoned their plans to help organize and monitor
        the coming presidential vote, which will effectively
        delegitimize any president elected in that balloting. The
        Clinton administration has said it will impose
        economic sanctions on Haiti if the government fails to
        toughen its democratic procedures before the election.
        And the Haitian opposition has leapt at the chance to
        boycott a vote that it always knew it would lose. 

        I ask Aristide about
        this, and he closes his
        eyes for a second as if
        to will himself into
        patience. "We'll deal
        with all this," he says.
        "I'm an optimist, and I
        like to believe that
        everyone is of good
        will, even if that's hard
        sometimes, even when
        they are plainly not."
        Meanwhile, the
        Americans are worried about what will happen to a
        future Aristide government if it does not have
        international legitimacy and wads of foreign aid. So is
        Aristide: it's easy to envision another coup should he
        arrive in power with no money to do anything for any of
        his thousands of starving and expectant constituents. 

        As chances for a Middle East resolution fade, it has
        become a priority for the Clinton administration to fix
        Haiti, one of its few remaining supposed foreign policy
        triumphs. American emissaries, and O.A.S. officials,
        have been shuttling between Aristide and the
        fragmented mini-parties of the opposition to try to
        cobble together some kind of agreement that will adjust
        the incorrect legislative vote. The painstaking
        to-and-fro may result in a delayed presidential election.

        "It's essential that we reach a resolution on the May 21
        elections and proceed as rapidly as possible to
        presidential elections so that we can have a smooth
        transition on inauguration day," says Donald Steinberg,
        the State Department's special Haiti coordinator. "We
        would view it as dangerous and destabilizing to have a
        vacuum of presidential power when Preval leaves

        But the opposition is digging in its heels. "We can no
        longer speak of a 'democratic transition' under
        Lavalas," says Jean-Claude Bajeux, a human rights
        advocate. Bajeux's voice is full of bitterness when he
        speaks of Aristide. "The mystery of mysteries is why
        Aristide did this," he says, referring to the disputed
        election. "I suppose there are psychological reasons for
        wanting a 100 percent vote. There is a desire for total
        power. Mwen se sel met peyi-a, sel kok ki kapab
        chante." He translates: I am the sole master of the
        country, the only cock who can crow. 

        Interestingly, among Aristide's biggest foes are
        intellectuals like Bajeux -- academics, journalists,
        human rights people, clergymen -- many of whom
        originally backed him. And Aristide's party in turn
        seems to be responding to the rebellion of the
        intellectuals, many of whom are members of the
        country's light-skinned elite. On state television, which
        is run by Lavalas, there are now long segments that
        show crowds of black Haitians demonstrating in the
        streets. In other programming, ceremonies of voodoo --
        sometimes considered by the elite to be the religion of
        the poor black masses -- go on for hours. Although
        there are certainly light-skinned people who still
        support Aristide and certainly dark-skinned ones who
        have rejected him, I began to notice -- as I went from
        one estranged supporter of Aristide's to the next -- that
        the great majority of them were lighter-skinned

                          The opposition is increasingly
                          frightened by Aristide's
                          populism: they call his base of
                          support (in French) le lumpen,
                          while he calls his constituency
                          pep-la (in Creole) -- the people.
                          Embryonic dictatorship, these
                          members of the opposition now
                          call the Preval-Aristide
                          government. They point out that
                          Preval dismissed the fractious
                          elected legislature in early 1999
                          and that until recently, when the
                          new legislature was seated after
                          the disputed May election, he
                          governed -- if you can call it that
        -- by decree. They claim, too, that Aristide, like both
        Duvaliers before him, will soon be a president with a
        rubber-stamp senate and a chamber of deputies to serve

        "In the first meeting of the new legislature under
        Aristide," Bajeux predicts, "a law abolishing the
        one-term limit on the presidency" will be passed. Then,
        Bajeux implies, Aristide, like the Duvaliers, would be
        able to be president-for-life, if he chooses. If he
        remains popular. 

        Those around Aristide deny that he has plans to make
        successive presidential terms legal or to serve
        successive terms. "And why should he bother?" says an
        American diplomat who insisted on anonymity. "During
        his off terms, he can simply rule, as he has done, from
        the sidelines." 

           n the end, what will Aristide do with his power?
           According to Americans involved in the recent
        electoral negotiations, he has promised that once in
        office, he will do "all the right things" -- but there are
        many who might not find that reassuring. His actions
        will be those of a clearly changed man. Unlike the
        Aristide of a decade ago, Aristide now understands the
        baroque complexity of Haitian politics, and that the
        political game -- nationally and internationally -- is at
        least as important as the people's will. Whether he can
        play both sides is another question. Powerful as he is,
        he was unable to rein in Ti Sonny. Is he then expected
        to be able to control big men with guns? He has
        controlled Preval, but then Preval wanted to be
        controlled, and he and Preval have not done very well
        directing the country. 

        Years ago as he was preparing to leave power,
        Aristide told me that during the next regime, he would
        "sit, and play guitar, and watch while someone else
        took the blame." As it turns out, he and Preval seem to
        have fiddled while Haiti has disintegrated. He could
        afford this unforgivable lapse because, although pep-la
        were starving and struggling, he remained fairly certain
        that no other leader could emerge to guide them, and
        that while he was waiting to be reunited with them,
        they, too, would wait for him. Their long wait is almost
        at an end. Aristide should hope that their patience is
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