PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, DEC. 18 -- A well-rehearsed Bernard Aronson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Latin America, greeted Haiti's president-elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide today with a Haitian Creole proverb. "Men anpil chay pa lou," said the envoy. "The more hands that are offered, the lighter the burden."
The remark captured the official U.S. stance toward the 37-year-old radical Roman Catholic priest who scored a landslide victory in Sunday's elections. The Bush administration's approach will be to increase aid and assistance to Haiti on the grounds that Aristide, despite his anti-American views, is the country's freely chosen president.
Aronson, offering a stamp of approval to the elections and an olive branch to the winner, was the first official of any nationality to publicly declare Aristide the victor on Monday.
But privately, U.S. officials are nervous. Aristide's campaign platform gives Haiti's relations with the United States a lower priority than those with either the other Caribbean or Latin American nations. He has said that U.S. aid in the past has done as much harm as good, and that while Haiti needs foreign aid, it should seek greater self-sufficiency as well. Repeatedly, he has said American aid has given Haiti dollars, but not dignity -- something he vows will change.
The new tension in Haitian-U.S. relations was illustrated by a meeting last Sunday between a group of American dignitaries, who had come to Haiti as election observers, and Aristide. The meeting appeared to be a bad omen for the new era in relations between the hemisphere's richest nation and its poorest.
On the one side were lions of America's foreign policy establishment, men such as Robert S. McNamara, a former World Bank chief and defense secretary; former House Speaker Jim Wright; John Whitehead, a former deputy secretary of state; ex-U.N. ambassador Andrew Young; and Robert Pastor, a former National Security Council member.
On the other side was the Haitian priest: a generation younger than most of the Americans, a radical liberation theologist with a passion for the poor and a chip on his shoulder -- especially when it comes to the United States.
Hands were shaken and Coca-Cola was served. But at the end of the 90-minute session, the Americans came away shaking their heads.
"He was hostile," said one of the participants. "It was the most frustrating hour I ever spent. None of us seemed to be able to establish any communication whatsoever."
Said another American: "He was violently anti-U.S. He said, 'I can't forget what your country has done to Haiti.' "
Some Americans here this week are more hopeful. "He is the last, best chance for Haiti," said Robert I. Rotberg, the president of Lafayette College who has written widely on Haiti. "But he's only now waking up to what it means to be president."
If the Americans were taken aback by Aristide's deep suspicion toward the United States, they should not have been. Aristide reflects the profound distrust that many -- perhaps most -- Haitians, rich and poor, share for the United States.
It is an attitude born in the early 19th century, when America's openly racist stance helped isolate Haiti from the rest of the world, and nurtured by the U.S. Marine occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Bitterness grew in the decades after World War II because of on-again, off-again U.S. backing for the murderous dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and overt support for his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
Aristide, who was 4 years old when Francois Duvalier took power in 1957, remembers the U.S. policy well. Before the Salesian order expelled Aristide in 1988 and banned him from saying Mass, Aristide railed openly against the United States. He accused it then -- and this month privately repeated the accusation -- of being responsible for the worst abuses of the Duvalierists.
In that regard, he is typical of his countrymen. Many Haitians immediately accused the United States two weeks ago when a grenade exploded at an Aristide rally, killing seven people and wounding 57. And it is virtually certain that any problem that Aristide encounters, be they internal machinations in his political party or attempts on his life, will be seized upon by many Haitians as further examples of Washington's manipulation.
Among the United States' nearest neighbors, there is none so estranged from American culture as Haiti. With 85 percent of its people illiterate and few owning televisions, poverty is one factor. But it is not the only one.
Despite the Marines' 19-year occupation, baseball never caught on in Haiti as it did in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic -- partly because the Marines, many of them Southerners, refused to have much to do with Haitian blacks.
This year, a Haitian-American, Marjorie Judith Vincent, was named Miss America. In almost any other Caribbean or Latin American country, such an event would have been the talk of almost every town. But in Haiti, it caused hardly a ripple; nobody but the country's tiny bourgoisie had ever heard of the pageant.
The estrangement toward the United States is also rooted in Haitians' pride in their tradition of independence.
A slave revolt against the French colonialists in 1804 made Haiti the second independent nation in the Americas and the world's first black republic. But the world -- especially the slave-trading United States -- was ill-prepared for a black republic. Haiti became an instant pariah, a dangerous example to America's own slaves in the South.
For 58 years, Washington refused to recognize the nation's independence. It took the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln before the United States finally established relations with its Caribbean neighbor.
The European powers also ostracized the island nation. There was little international trade. And Haiti, once the jewel in France's colonial crown, a land of incredible natural wealth, gradually fell into poverty and despair, helped along by destructive rulers and chaotic land development patterns.
"Haitians in general are more paranoid than the rest of us, but maybe they have a right to be," said Rotberg, the college president. "The Haitian body politic is very suspicious, very isolated and very resistant to outside culture."