Haiti after Aristide

Robert Novak
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Posted: Mar 25, 2004 12:00 AM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- U.S. Ambassador James Foley on Monday passed the word to Provisional Prime Minister Gerard LaTortue that his superiors in the Bush administration were not happy about language used by the head of Haiti's new government. LaTortue refers to his country's rebels as "freedom fighters." That designation, the prime minister responded, was deserved by patriots who had ousted as president the oppressive tyrant, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The exchange reflected the delicate relationship between Port-au-Prince and Washington at this new stage of Haiti's tortured history. Both the office and person of LaTortue, a 69-year-old retired United Nations development official, are guarded by armed U.S. State Department security personnel. He needs massive American help for this desperately poor country. But LaTortue, no politician and an outspoken technocrat, does not welcome U.S. tutelage about his language or his policies.

The Americans are back in Haiti a decade after threats of massive U.S. force restored Aristide. This time, however, Aristide would have been overthrown even if U.S. Marines never arrived. The prime minister is correct in calling the rebels freedom fighters.

This was my first visit here since 1993, prior to Aristide's restoration, and Haiti is even more a third world backwater. The radical president's reign left a country without electricity, passable roads or public schools, with a devastated economy and, according to LaTortue, a looted treasury. Interviewed in his office, the prime minister told me: "The public finance is in crisis. They (the Aristide regime) took everything they could from the reserve of the country." His estimate: "over $1 billion" stolen in four weeks.

During Aristide's last days, well-armed gangs supporting him went on a rampage of destruction and looting across the country. It continued after his departure and before foreign troops arrived, with pro-Aristide demonstrators sweeping downtown Port-au-Prince to trash parked autos on March 10.

When Caribbean neighbor Jamaica gave asylum to Aristide two weeks ago, an infuriated LaTortue immediately recalled Haiti's ambassador to Kingston. A second return of Aristide as a free man is ruled out. Boniface Alexandre, the Supreme Court chief justice who became provisional president upon Aristide's resignation under Haiti's constitution, is a careful jurist who measures his words -- except when it comes to Aristide. "He cannot come back to Haiti," Alexandre told me. Aristide will return only if it is decided to indict and extradite him, Justice Minister Bernard Grousse informed me.

LaTortue's simultaneous reliance on and independence from the Americans were demonstrated last weekend when U.S. military helicopters transported him to Gonaives, where the anti-Aristide rebellion began. He met "freedom fighters," in coats and ties for the occasion but disdained by the State Department. "They are not thugs," LaTortue told me. "They are people who have suffered from the dictatorial practices of Aristide."

LaTortue was impressed by Guy Phillipe, the 36-year-old former police commissioner who led the armed rebellion against Aristide. Phillipe's irregulars still control half the country but give way when foreign forces arrive -- to U.S. Marines and Canadian troops in Port-au-Prince and the French Foreign Legion in Gonaives. But Phillipe is estranged from U.S. authorities here. "Please tell the American government that we are not your enemies," he informed me.

The boycott by American officials of the leader of anti-Aristide rebels is a small part of the American syndrome that includes lingering support for Aristide within the U.S. political community. LaTortue's words to me might well be heeded in Washington: "We are committed to not only democracy but also development. You would not have total democracy here."

I found the fear among many Haitians that John Kerry as president (under Congressional Black Caucus pressure) will return Aristide. The Democratic candidate should consider the experience of Mary Louise Baker, for 33 years co-owner of a five-building apparel factory in the Cite Soleil (pro-Aristide) slum -- employing 700 people and feeding 7,000.

On Feb. 27, two days before Aristide left, some 200 heavily armed pro-Aristide gang members entered the Baker plant to loot and destroy equipment, leaving it an empty shell. I asked Mrs. Baker whether she will rebuild. "I will have to see what happens here, whether you Americans send Aristide back again," she replied. Such widespread doubt stalls economic recovery for this tragic land.