Haitians Divided Over Aristide

In this sprawling, dilapidated capital of broken streets and crumbling slums, one building stands apart.

It is an inexact replica of the White House. Its lawns are a perfect green, not worn and littered like most here. The fresh paint on the exterior is so white it feels luminescent, especially in contrast to all the faded and peeling paint throughout most of this city.

It is Haiti's National Palace, the elegant office of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Some of the most notorious and ruthless dictators of the late 20th century have wandered its halls, including François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Thousands of Haitians died and thousands more fled the country during their brutal regime, which stretched from 1957 to 1986.

Despots and dictators have far-outnumbered democrats in Haiti. It is sobering to discover that with his election victory in 1990, Aristide was the first democratically-elected leader in this country's 200-year history. Which helps explain why some here remain fiercely loyal to him, despite the accusations of corruption, brutal intimidation and the desperate poverty that has only worsened under his leadership.

"We will never betray the blood of Aristide," chants a passionate group of Aristide supporters outside the palace gates. With anti-government rebels threatening take control of the city and oust Aristide, his defenders have become a permanent fixture here.

They are mostly young, mostly men. The sight of a reporter — and especially one with a TV camera crew in tow — gets them easily exercised. Some speak French, but all speak Creole, the Haitian language.

"If the rebels come to Port-au-Prince," says one man, "we will burn it up, we will cut their throats." As he utters the final words he passes his hand across his throat, as if he is slicing it.

"How many of you are prepared to die defending President Aristide?"

All around, hands shoot into the air. Some put both hands up for added emphasis.

"We are all prepared to die," says one.

A Symbol of ‘Corruption and Crime’

Just a few miles across town, a crowd of about the same size and the same age has massed in the worn courtyard of the National Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Port-au-Prince's main university.

Many in this crowd once shared the absolute faith in Aristide that those in front of the palace still hold.

One young woman remembers the day in 1994 when Aristide returned to Haiti after the U.S. Army pushed out the military dictators. "Not only was I a huge supporter of Aristide," she says, "there were no cars on the streets the day he came back, so I joined the crowd and walked all the way to the airport to welcome him."

But 10 years later, she says he has worn out his welcome. "Aristide has destroyed absolutely everything in this country."

"Aristide symbolizes all the problems of our country," adds a 26-year-old political science student, "corruption and crime."

Unlike the group in front of the palace, the students insist they will not resort to violence. But they have already faced violence.

Two students open their shirts to show more than a dozen ugly scabs dotted over their torsos. They are painful souvenirs of a street demonstration against Aristide last week. It began peacefully, but dissolved into chaos when Aristide's Chimeres — street gangs fiercely loyal to the president — began hurling rocks at the marchers and firing at them with pellet guns.

Another chant, this one from a group of students as they bang rocks against metal railings in advance of their next demonstration. "One way or another," they sing, "Aristide must go." This time they are ready.

The rebels control virtually all of northern Haiti and are gaining new territory every day. Their leaders say they will soon lay siege to the capital.

Cities and towns in the north have fallen with little resistance, but it is certain to be different here. When the battle for Port-au-Prince begins, the prize will be control of this country. The passionate young supporters of the president will meet face to face with the equally passionate young students determined to oust him.

Only one outcome is certain: tragedy.