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6071: Give Aristide a Chance (fwd)

From: nozier@tradewind.net

November 30, 2000  Give Aristide a Chance

ORTHAMPTON, Mass. ? Haiti had a presidential election last
Sunday, and both the so-called opposition and official foreign
 observers, including the American delegation, stayed away. The
Opposition parties absented themselves because, knowing that
Jean-Bertrand Aristide would win by a very large margin, they
hoped to discredit his victory. The United States claimed to be
disturbed by irregularities in vote counting during legislative
elections last May. But disregarding the obvious paradox ? American
officials scolding Haitians for irregularities in vote-counting ? this
claim makes no sense. If the United States had really wanted Haitians to
enjoy the Franchise, wouldn't the United States have eagerly monitored
the presidential election, to make sure that it, too, would not be
flawed? America's foreign-policy bureaucracy has long disliked Mr.
Aristide, but the opinions of foreigners should count less than those of
citizens. And the great majority of Haitians revere him. Some
foreign observers find this weird. They say that Haitians have fallen
for a "cult of personality." But there is a much more obvious
explanation. The vast majority of Haitians suffer a poverty that most
Americans would find unendurable, indeed unimaginable. They
have arrived at this state thanks largely to two centuries of bloody,
self-serving rulers, many of them propped up by the United States,
tyrants like Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. When Mr. Aristide
became Haiti's first democratically elected leader in 1990, he also
became the first Haitian leader who promised to improve the lives of
poor citizens ? the first, that is, who made the promise sound
credible.I spent portions of this past year in the company of an
American doctor who works in Haiti's Central Plateau, a mountainous
region  without electricity or, in many places, potable water and
sanitation, where pathetic stalks of millet grow among the rocks of all
but treeless, eroded hillsides. Near-famine conditions prevail ? it is
the  poorest part of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. 
On hikes into the remote countryside, I kept running across Mr.
Aristide's nickname, "Titid," freshly painted on rocks and on some of
 the few, scattered trees. Out of curiosity, I asked for explanations
from people in the region. I talked to a peasant farmer who
 introduced himself only by his Creole first name, which in English
means "Thanks Be to God." (This is his second name. When he was
born, his mother had called him, provisionally, "Not for Sure." She
had lost her three baby boys before him ? not an uncommon
occurrence in a country where a quarter of all people die before 40,
mostly of preventable, treatable illnesses). During his brief first
presidency, Mr. Aristide had sponsored a public works project, and
Thanks Be to God had worked there as a manual laborer. He considered
this brief little job a great gift. (Officially, 60 percent of Haitians
are unemployed, almost certainly an  underestimate). I asked Thanks Be
to God if he would vote for Mr.Aristide again. "I don't even think there
should be an election," he answered. "If he weren't running, I wouldn't
even bother to go and register. All the other candidates are zeros."
I talked to a community health worker in a village deep in the
mountains. He spoke about the tiny, wealthy class of Haitians known
 as "the bourgeoisie.""They are ashamed of us peasants," he said, "but
they should be ashamed of their own selves, because they have resources
and they do nothing to help us, and their resources come from our
labor." Mr.Aristide, the health worker believed, was the bourgeoisie's
enemy and the peasant's champion.I talked to a young man named Ti Jean,
who said that if he were a "philosophe," (if, that is, he had gone to
high school), he would write a book about the Haitian elite. "The
Haitian bourgeoisie, they think they are God and they think we are
dogs," he said.He remembered a speech in which Mr. Aristide had declared
that  poor Haitians are not stupid just because they don't know how to
 read. "I love Aristide," Ti Jean said. "Because he helps poor people.
 He believes we are human. And he makes jobs." As for the people who
live in the howling slums of the capital, Port au Prince, not long ago
100,000 came out of their tents and  cardboard lean-tos to celebrate
when Mr. Aristide went to register as  a presidential candidate.
 Mr. Aristide once said that he hoped to bring Haitians "dignified
poverty." That would mean, for instance, huts with metal roofs
instead of leaky ones made of banana fronds, and concrete floors
instead of dirt, and schools for their children and shoes for them to
wear to school, and clean water, and food ? above all, food.
Mr. Aristide may not be able to deliver any of that. Maybe he will
 turn out to be just another politician or, as his detractors would have
it, a corrupt demagogue. But the Haitians have a right to their hopes
and a right to elect the president of their choice. And the United
States, which has done a great deal in the past to harm Haiti, should
now do all it can to help Haiti's duly elected government. After all,
we helped the satanic Duvaliers. Surely no one believes we could
do worse.

 Tracy Kidder is writing a book about a doctor and his hospital in