-- The death threat came in a chilling Creole expression. Unless the opposition to President-elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide backed off, righteous crowds would kill 80 of Haiti's establishment politicians, journalists and clerics, turning their "blood to ink, their skin to parchment and their skulls to inkwells."
Twenty Haitian reporters were summoned to hear the warning read out on Jan. 9 at St. Jean Bosco, a burned-out church whose shell remains a monument to Aristide's days there as a liberation theology priest. Paul Raymond, a militant in the slum's "Little Church Community," named the opposition figures one by one, as several dozen activists affiliated with Aristide's Lavalas political movement shouted, "Long Live Aristide! Long Live Aristide!"
Realizing the significance of what they had just heard, the reporters rushed back to their radio and television stations. By nightfall, Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, was buzzing with the news. Opposition politicians demanded Raymond's arrest. Foreign embassies and the papal nuncio issued condemnations. People waited for Aristide to emerge from his luxurious home to disavow the threat made in his name. But they waited in vain.
As Aristide prepares to take office Wednesday for his second five-year term, Haiti is again divided over its most charismatic and enigmatic figure. And again, the United States -- Aristide's former patron and perpetual nemesis -- is in the middle of the divide. The sunny but desperately poor Caribbean nation that the Clinton administration repeatedly cited as a foreign policy success now seems likely to be one of the Bush administration's earliest headaches.
Bombs go off here regularly these days, more than a dozen in Port-au-Prince since Aristide's election in November. One of three blasts Jan. 19 left a pigtailed schoolgirl writhing and moaning in the street. A number of mysterious political killings remain unsolved as well, making the threats at St. Jean Bosco seem all too real.
Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis blames the bombings on extremists in the anti-Aristide opposition, although he acknowledges that police have not identified the perpetrators. "It's a provocation," he said in an interview. "They are trying to get us to take repressive measures. But we will just let the police do its work."
The opposition alliance, the Democratic Convergence, regards Aristide's Nov. 26 election as illegitimate and charges that he is preparing to set up another Haitian dictatorship. As a result, it has refused to deal with Aristide as president-elect, despite U.S. appeals for dialogue. Opposition leaders held a convention Saturday -- called "etats generaux" to evoke the French Revolution -- and vowed to form a parallel "provisional government" unless a deal can be worked out with Aristide before he takes over.
"The elections were fraudulent, not only irregular but illegal," said Leslie Manigat, a former president and current opposition leader who was on the St. Jean Bosco list. "Given that, we demand the undoing of what was done wrong."
The Convergence was formed as a broad group with help from the International Republican Institute, an organization that promotes democracy that is closely identified with the U.S. Republican Party. It includes former Aristide allies -- people who helped him fight Haiti's dictators, then soured as they watched him at work. But it also includes former backers of the hated Duvalier family dictatorship and of the military officers who overthrew Aristide in 1991 and terrorized the country for three years.
The most determined of these men, with a promise of anonymity, freely express their desire to see the U.S. military intervene once again, this time to get rid of Aristide and rebuild the disbanded Haitian army. "That would be the cleanest solution," said one opposition party leader. Failing that, they say, the CIA should train and equip Haitian officers exiled in the neighboring Dominican Republic so they could stage a comeback themselves.
With just under 8 million inhabitants, zero natural resources and no strategic value except proximity to Cuba, Haiti instead would seem a perfect candidate for benign neglect under the Bush administration's national-interest test. Perfect, that is, except for three things: geography, boat people and drug smuggling.
According to Haitian and foreign observers alike, the risk is high that cocaine and desperate Haitians will head in ever higher numbers to Florida -- where President Bush's younger brother, Jeb, is governor -- unless a way is found to resolve the political and social confrontation swirling around Aristide's person, his tactics and his plans.
"There is a lot of misery here," complained Pierre Blaise.
His village, Sous-Bogne, lies just across the road from the Club Mediterranee, a verdant seaside resort near the town of Montrouis, about 35 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince. "Haiti Magic," reads a sign at the hotel's palm-shaded entrance.
European and American tourists by the planeload used to descend on the club every week, providing a livelihood for Blaise, 55, and for those of his 15 children who were old enough to work. Those days are over. Because of political turmoil and crime, the resort has closed. Garbage lines its beach. Furniture is piled for storage in the rooms. The pool sits forlorn and unused, filled with dirty rainwater.
But a rumor has moved recently through the huts of straw matting and cinder block. With Aristide back in office, the club will reopen soon, it says. The village will get jobs again.
"We're waiting for Aristide," Blaise said. "He's our friend."
Aristide has come a long way since his start as a tightly wired priest combating misery and despair in the Port-au-Prince slums. Today he has a reputation as a calculating politician, along with a wife, two children and a suburban home with air conditioning and a swimming pool.
Aristide began his first term in February 1991 after winning 67 percent of the vote in the country's first democratic election. A liberation theology activist, beloved by the poor for his courage and eloquence, he voiced the aspirations of Haiti's downtrodden and hopeless in a sinuous, image-laden Creole they readily embraced.
But his presidency was aborted after seven months by a military coup d'etat that his supporters say was carried out with U.S. acquiescence. Three years later, with the military dictatorship universally condemned and pressure mounting from black political leaders in Washington, President Clinton dispatched 20,000 troops to restore Aristide to power.
That was the beginning of a long, heavy injection of aid money and international political capital, the start of what one official involved in the effort called "an unhealthy embrace." Now -- six years and some $3 billion later -- the embrace has ended, replaced by discouragement and in some cases resentment.
Kofi Annan, the normally circumspect U.N. secretary general, has decided the U.N. political mission here should close on Tuesday and has warned of "further turmoil" that will further impoverish the hemisphere's poorest nation. The United States has long since brought home its last troops, and it ended a police training program last July; Washington also is the driving force behind a freeze on $500 million in international aid for the cash-starved government.
Although the Clinton administration returned Aristide to power, in the end it had largely lost faith in his willingness to play by the rules of democracy. In that, U.S. officials were joined by most U.N. officials and European governments involved in trying to get Haiti on its feet.
Most diplomatic dismay focused on last May's legislative elections, in which Aristide's Lavalas movement won 71 of 81 lower house seats and 26 of 27 Senate seats, setting up an Aristide presidency unfettered by legislative obstacles. U.S. and other foreign observers were unanimous in concluding that the Provisional Electoral Council unfairly tallied Senate votes in 10 districts to prevent Lavalas candidates from facing a runoff.
As a result, they declined to recognize the results and refused to validate the November presidential vote. International irritation rose further when the council declared a turnout of 60 percent and gave Aristide a 90 percent margin of victory. Reliable estimates from foreign groups put the turnout at less than 20 percent, partly because of an opposition boycott.
A commitment obtained late last year by Anthony Lake, the Clinton administration's special Haiti envoy, required Aristide to resolve the Senate dispute and reach out to opposition leaders to form an inclusive government, among other things. The incentive: recognition and renewed aid. During his confirmation hearings to become secretary of state, Colin L. Powell said Lake's accords seemed to be a basis for breaking the stalemate.
Some steps have been taken, but behind the specifics negotiated by Lake, Haiti's old background music of class hatred and mistrust plays on. Aristide and his followers seem convinced that the country's former ruling class is still determined, with U.S. help, to prevent him from making the deep changes they believe are necessary to improve the lives of Haiti's poor. Talk of another coup only reinforces their convictions.
"How to move forward with the emancipation of the Haitian people without getting stopped by the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie, that is the big challenge for him," said Leslie Voltaire, an adviser on the staff of outgoing President Rene Preval. Alexis, who has hung a large painting of poor people looting the rich in his office vestibule, agreed, saying the "real problem" in Haiti is Aristide's stand in favor of the poor.
The shelves are nearly empty in the little grocery store run by Jacqueline Toussaint, 50, and her husband Winny Fils-Aime, 54, on the main street of Montrouis. Thieves in the little town have hit twice, and the couple no longer dares to exhibit their wares.
"You can get robbed any time," Toussaint said. "God knows what will happen."
In any case, she added, prices have risen so fast recently that people cannot afford to buy food. The drop in sales has meant that her son, who became the pride of his family by finishing high school, could not continue to the university. "So he just sits at home," she said.
But help is on the way, Fils-Aime predicted, because Aristide is soon to take power again. "The voice of the people is the voice of God," he said, "and if the people want something, nobody can stop it."
As soon as Aristide returned from exile with the U.S. troops in 1994, the disgraced army was disbanded and the Clinton administration set out to train and equip a 6,000-member police force with help from the United Nations, France and others. The idea was to give Haitians their first taste of justice and professional policing.
Things have not worked out as planned. Politics, U.S. intervention and corruption still play a large role in the Haitian justice system. So much so that U.S. diplomats were forced three months ago to denounce talk of a coup among disaffected police officers around whom swirled reports of drug smuggling.
Many police officers have left in a cloud over such allegations. And they are not without foundation; the House International Relations Committee charged in December that traffickers "have largely succeeded in consolidating a narco-state in Haiti."
Other officers have left for better salaries in legitimate work. As a result, the force stands today at fewer than 4,500. Haitians call them "the philosophers," mocking a requirement that recruits have a high school diploma in a nation of 90 percent illiteracy.
The problems with Haiti's National Police came to a head last October when Aristide showed up at Provisional Electoral Council headquarters to register officially as a candidate for election, joined by a crowd of cheering supporters.
The local police commissioner, Jean-Jacques "Jackie" Nau, had his men go through the crowd looking for weapons. A street leader known to be an Aristide supporter, nicknamed Ronald Cadaver in tribute to his reputation for violence, refused to relinquish his gun. In the confrontation that ensued, Cadaver and his gang disarmed Nau and other officers and put tires around their necks in apparent preparation for one of the gruesome burnings known as "necklacing."
The standoff was resolved without anyone being killed. But Cadaver was never called to account, and the infuriated Nau began meeting with another police commissioner, Guy Philippe, and other officers to discuss what should be done.
By the middle of November, in an account confirmed by a senior U.S. official, Prime Minister Alexis said he was visited by Don Steinberg, a Lake aide then on temporary duty in Port-au-Prince. Steinberg relayed intelligence that Nau, Philippe and the others were discussing what could be the beginnings of a coup. Several days later, Alexis said, Steinberg went to see Aristide at his home with the information, warning that Aristide and Preval could be assassination targets.
Called in to explain themselves, Alexis went on, Nau and Philippe denied they were contemplating a coup. But within days, they and a half-dozen other officers fled to the Dominican Republic.
Two other officers implicated in the reports sought refuge in the Dominican Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Haitian authorities wanted to wait them out. But Alexis said they were allowed instead to travel unmolested to the Dominican Republic -- at the request of the U.S. Embassy.