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Haiti's Aristride Confirms That He Will Step Down

By Douglas Farah
The Washington Post

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide firmly shut the door Thursday on the possibility of remaining in office past his constitutionally mandated term, saying the impression he would not step down was a misunderstanding and that presidential elections will go forward as scheduled on Dec. 17.

He also warned in an interview that if international economic aid was cut, the United States would face an increased tide of fleeing boat people. Aristide said the U.S. Coast Guard's apprehension at sea of 1,000 Haitian boat people in the past week, more than the total for the previous 12 months, was a "warning sign" that the international community should not slacken the flow of foreign aid to the impoverished nation. He said all those who were fleeing were "economic refugees."

Although Aristide recently appeared to hint that he would not step down as scheduled on Feb. 7, he said had not intended to give that impression. The president, speaking to foreign reporters in his private office at the Presidential Palace, said the misunderstanding stemmed from his reluctance to risk polarizing the nation by publicizing his decision to leave office in the face of demands by his most fervent followers to stay three more years.

Aristide's handpicked successor, Rene Preval, is likely to win an easy victory in the 14-candidate field. Aristide is widely expected to remain active in politics and seek reelection after his successor's term expires in 2000. About his future plans, however, Aristide said only that he would have plenty of time to think about them after the next president takes office.

Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, took office Feb. 7, 1991, and was overthrown by the military seven months later. He returned to Haiti on Oct. 15, 1994, following the intervention in Haiti by 20,000 U.S. troops. Aristide, who remains tremendously popular, was under great pressure to stay in office past his constitutionally mandated term to make up for his three years in exile.

"People are frustrated. They feel they lost three years, and they had to fight for three years," Aristide said. "They expressed their view. It is my responsibility to listen to them at a time when I am asking them to listen to others."

The president also defended a fiery speech he delivered on Nov. 11 at the funeral of a slain legislator and friend. Many people here, especially in the business community, interpreted the speech as a call for his followers to take to the streets. Aristide said, however, that all he asked them to do was to help end killings by accompanying police on searches for illegal weapons and by providing information to the authorities.

The president stressed that he understood the need for political tranquillity, where "the rich can have stability, which is essential to investment, and the poor can work, so it benefits both."

But he warned more Haitian boat people will flee the country if foreign aid is delayed. Because economic reforms have stalled, the United States is withholding $4.6 million in economic aid and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have not disbursed about $45 million in loans.

"People are leaving despite the peaceful climate because they do not have jobs that will give them food," Aristide said. "On the one side, our friends are urging us to do things and, on the other hand, they hold up money that could be used to create jobs and keep people here. They need to be consistent."

Aristide said that while trying to rebuild the country, the government had been able to "feed people with words only, but without food and without jobs. We would like to see them with work, jobs and food, not just words."