President Jean-Bertrand Aristide assumes office in Haiti


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took office Thursday as the first freely elected leader of Haiti in more than three decades, promising an era of peace for the troubled Caribbean nation.

In his inauguration speech before members of the National Assembly, Aristide said the impoverished country was beginning its second independence by 'taking the path to democracy' and leaving behind its bloody past.


Aristide's inauguration comes five years to the day after the departure of President-for-life Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier from Haiti that brought an end to 29 years of Duvalier family rule.

'Today is Feb. 7. and we are celebrating the marriage of the people and the army.' Aristide said. 'I hope that from today on no blood will be spilled.'

Aristide took 66 percent of the vote in a Dec. 16 presidential election, which was deemed by international observers as the first truly democratic vote in Haiti in more than 30 years.


Sporadic free elections were held in the 19th and 20th centuries prior to the rise of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1957.

Aristide was given a 21-gun salute by the army, after announcing changes in the army high command. He replaced five of the eight commanding generals and appointed as chief of staff of the army Col. Raul Cedras, head of the electoral council that organized the December elections.

'We want democracy or death,' Aristide said in English during his speech. 'We call on the international community for assistance to help us protect against drugtrafficking and terrorism.'

Aristide gave the majority of his speech in Haitian Creole, but spoke a few words of French, English, Spanish, German and Italian for foreign guests at the inauguration.

The ceremony was attended by Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson, Sen. Joseph Kennedy, D-N.Y., Mexican Foreign Minister Fernando Solana, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Secretary General of the Organization of American States Joao Baena Soares.

Aristide said he received a promise of $12 million in aid from Taiwan, half of which is to be directed to development projects and half to the military.


He said the European Economic Community had committed $144 million in aid over the next four years and Venezuela and Mexico have agreed to supply oil to Haiti under preferential credit terms.

Aristide added that Haiti had signed electricity contracts with Canada's Hydro-Quebec and German electricity firms to help overcome the country's desperate energy needs.

During the inauguration, Bishop Petion LaRoche, president of the country's Bishop's Conference, said mass to bless Aristide's term as president, and said he hoped that for once in all of Haiti's history the people will have what they deserve.

Aristide, in a rare move of support for the country's Catholic establishment, applauded the bishop's formal acceptance of his presidency.

Aristide was thrown out of his Roman Catholic Salesian order for preaching populist politics from the pulpit. He remains a priest but cannot perform any of a priest's duties, including saying mass.

Aristide made no reference in his speech to his plans for the country, but before the December election, Aristide said in an interview that his first task after assuming office will be to lower prices for basic foods and launch literacy programs. Some 80 percent of adults cannot read or write in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.


Musical bands played in the streets of Port-au-Prince Thursday to celebrate Aristide's inauguration.

'Today a new era begins in Haiti,' said Cesar Jovin, 37, one of the hundreds of people celebrating in the streets. 'I hope that Aristide will govern in peace and will bring progress for all Haitians.'

Aristide will spend his first full day as president Friday inaugurating a museum at Fort Dimanche, a former army barracks that served as a jail and torture chamber for political prisoners during the Duvalier dictatorship. It is commonly referred to in Haiti as 'Fort Death.'

Haitian officials were confident of a smooth transfer of power from former interim President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot to Aristide, with hated Tonton Macoutes chief Roger Lafontant in jail and security forces on special alert.

Lafontant led an unsuccessful coup Jan. 6 in an attempt to fulfill a promise never to allow Aristide to enter the presidential palace.

The Tonton Macoutes -- 'bogeymen' in Haitian Creole -- served as the country's secret police during the 30-year rule by President-for-life Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude and have been blamed for most of the terror, murders and disappearances in the country.

But the threat of an army revolt, which has happened on numerous occasions in Haiti's recent history, seemed diminished after the military proved its committment to the democratic process by supporting the December elections, arresting Lafontant and attending Aristide's inauguration.


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