By LARRY ROHTER
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- In subdued, even somber, ceremonies here Wednesday, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ended a turbulent five-year term by becoming the first elected head of state in nearly 200 years of Haitian history to peacefully transfer power to a popularly-chosen successor.
To the applause of an audience of Haitian and foreign dignitaries well aware of both the significance and high cost of his investiture by democratic means, the country's new president, Rene Garcia Preval, promised to duplicate Aristide's achievement.
"I swear to obey and make sure others obey the Constitution of the nation, and its laws," the new president said in taking his oath of office.
Aristide, in his last official act as president, tweaked the United States and spared Preval from taking a step that might undermine his relationship with Washington. Late Tuesday night, Haiti announced that it was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, broken by dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier more than 30 years ago in response to American pressure.
Arriving at Parliament nearly an hour behind schedule for the swearing-in, Aristide was greeted by a military band, the only remnant of the now-disbanded Haitian armed forces that overthrew him in a coup in September 1991.
Afterward, a small group of onlookers sang "Auld Lang Syne" and complained of Aristide's decision to step down, in keeping with a constitutional prohibition on Haitian presidents succeeding themselves in office.
"We want Titid, we want Titid," some chanted, using Aristide's nickname. In an indication of the narrow political maneuverability and autonomy Preval may have, others shouted that they were eager for Aristide to run for president again in five years.
Wednesday also marked the 10th anniversary of the day Jean-Claude Duvalier was toppled from power, ending a 30-year family dictatorship and ushering in a period of political instability and state-sponsored violence that concluded only with Aristide's restoration to power by 20,000 American troops in the fall of 1994.
Nevertheless, few people took to the streets to mark the occasion, in contrast to Aristide's inauguration five years ago today. And there were virtually no public festivities.
"Today doesn't really mean a lot to me, because there are still no jobs and I don't have enough to eat," said Felix Joseph, who described himself as an unemployed mason.
In his inaugural address, delivered Wednesday afternoon on the lawn of the National Palace, Preval vowed to remedy that situation, calling on Haitians to "join intelligences and unite efforts" in order to do away with "the profound inequities of our society."
February 9, 1996
By LARRY ROHTER
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Rene Preval had not even been sworn in as Haiti's president before posters began appearing, urging his charismatic predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to return to office as soon as the constitution permits. "Au revoir, President Titid," the banners said, using Aristide's nickname. "We'll meet again in 2001."
But the issue of most immediate interest to Haitians, especially Preval, who took office on Wednesday, is what Aristide intends to do for the next five years. Will he retire to his comfortable suburban home with his new wife to think and write, as he has said, or will he end up as Haiti's co-president?
The answer, Haitian and foreign analysts suggest, depends almost entirely on the man who has dominated Haitian politics throughout this decade and whose prestige far exceeds Preval's. "Aristide has the power either to sabotage the Preval presidency or to make it a success," said a Latin American diplomat here. "It's really up to him."
One diplomat based here said: "Aristide does not like to share power, much less have to give it up. He has too big an ego for that."
This weekend, Aristide and his wife are to travel to the United States, where he will receive an award. But foreign diplomats and prominent Haitians have been recommending, only half in jest, that the best thing he could do for his successor is to take a long honeymoon. "How about a six-month, round-the-world cruise?" one asked.
In an interview this week, Preval put down rumors that he and Aristide had been squabbling during the transition. Preval said he continued to have a "very, very, very good" relationship with his political mentor, whom he served as prime minister in 1991.
"Everyone is talking about divergences," he said, indicating exasperation with the Haitian rumor mill. "But divergences about what?"
In fact, Preval said, Aristide has made his job easier with actions like abolishing the army. In a last-minute move Aristide re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, sparing Preval the political cost that would have exacted in relations with Washington.
"I want to tell him thank you for that," Preval said of the initiatives Aristide has undertaken. "It opens the door for me to accomplish another mission."
Still, Aristide has left behind the problem that threatened to do the most damage to his political standing and reputation as the champion of Haiti's poor, the privatization of government enterprises. Preval has offered few clues to how he intends to conduct his presidency, other than to say it will be in a manner distinct from his predecessor.
"My style is different because the situation is different," he said. "My name is not Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And because the situation is different, the policies will be different."
A Haitian who has worked closely with both men said Preval has "more street savvy" and is more pragmatic, which could work to his advantage.
Aristide, he said, sees himself not just as Haiti's premier political figure, but as a "leader of the Third World" who must weigh his actions for their international impact.
Preval, on the other hand, is "more interested in solving the problem" and less concerned about his place in history or on the international stage, he said.
In purely political terms, Haitian and foreign analysts said, Aristide has little to gain personally from a Preval presidency that outshines his own, especially if he plans to make another run for office in five years. Indeed, some diplomats here argue that a period of continued instability could encourage Preval to step down before his term ends.
"The worse things get, the better Aristide looks," a prominent Haitian political figure said.
"If Preval succeeds, people won't be so angry," said a second.
Another, unpredictable factor in the viability of a Preval presidency is Parliament, which has shown surprising independence since it was sworn in late last year. In an unexpected rebuff, the National Assembly recently rejected Aristide's candidate to head the national police, Lt. Col. Jean-Marie Fourel Celestin, who had been criticized as imperious, corrupt and too much a creature of the departing president.
If the legislative branch proved willing to stand up to the powerful Aristide, Haitians have asked, what does that bode for Preval?
"I never dreamed of becoming president, and the proof of that is that I never joined a political party," Preval said in the interview. "Even today, I do not belong to any political party."
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