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Commentary: Can Aristide's tale be true?

By CARMEN GENTILE, UPI Latin America Correspondent

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's tale is the stuff of bad Hollywood fiction -- political plot twists combined with a hefty amount of conspiracy.

A third-world leader is under increasing pressure from armed rebels to resign or be forcibly removed from office. Looking to the United States and other international allies for support, the embattled leader finds none, just encouragement to step down for the good of his impoverished, conflict-wracked nation.

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Allegations of his misdeeds -- corruption and human rights violations -- prevent him from finding a friend even in liberal-minded France, the country's former colonial ruler. The leader, touted as a man of and for the island nation's vast, poor population, is an island unto himself.

Defiant, he seeks to persevere no matter what the cost -- democracy is as stake -- and no amount of bloodshed in the streets will change his mind.

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But back in Washington, the world's power brokers make a decision. It's time take action. Troops are readied for deployment to the tiny island nation in America's backyard, while a special task force is assembled to complete a single, decisive act that will resound on the nation's political landscape for years to come.

Then, in a whirlwind, pre-dawn confusion, the third-world leader is whisked away to the airport, where U.S. embassy personal and troops await him. He's put on a plane bound for an unknown destination. The fate of his nation is longer in his hands.

For Aristide, his tale isn't another one of Hollywood's flights of fancy. Rather it's his account of what happened during his final days in office and subsequent departure from Haiti.

Since his Feb. 29 flight from Port-au-Prince to the Central African Republic, Aristide has maintained that he neither voluntarily left Haiti, nor resigned the presidency. Rather, he was "duped" by U.S. officials there into being taken to the airport, then put on a plane bound for the Central African Republic.

Washington has repeatedly denied the ex-Haitian president's accusations, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell calling Aristide's story "absurd."

But during and in-flight interview with the Washington Post while en route from the CAR to Jamaica -- where he will reportedly spend 8-10 weeks with his family -- Aristide gave greater detail to his Hollywood-esque version of what happened that day.

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He recalled how he had been speaking with U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley on Feb. 28 about ways to end the bloodshed. For the last month, armed rebels calling for Aristide's resignation had been sweeping the Caribbean nation, taking over every town and city in their path. More than 100 people had died up to that point.

The following day -- thinking he was receiving a U.S. escort to a news conference to appeal for peace -- Aristide said he was accompanied by embassy officials and soldiers to the airport and forced onto a plane for the African country.

"I know there were American military and maybe other militaries from other countries. I cannot say only Americans," Aristide said. An aide to the ex-president and unidentified American security paid to protect Aristide supported his claim, reported the Post.

He went on to say that despite the U.S. efforts to end his leadership, he still considered himself the president hoped that his presence in Jamaica -- just over 100 miles from the coast in Haiti -- would be a comfort to his supporters.

"I do believe many Haitians who are poor or suffering, or in hiding, think that if I am closer physically, it's better for them instead of being far away," he said.

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Haiti's new Prime Minister Gerard Latortue apparently isn't one of those finding comfort in Aristide's close proximity, saying his presence in the region would only escalate tensions in a conflict that has already claimed more than 200 lives.

Meanwhile, Aristide's supporters at home continue to back their elected leader and condemn the United States for his departure.

Following his flight, throngs of Aristide's faithful fell silent, fearful that the rebel forces that swept into the city would maim and kill anyone with allegiance to Aristide. But once U.S. forces defanged the rebels -- telling them to put down their arms or face Marine artillery -- the flow of pro-Aristide opinions resumed.

Dozens of irate Haitians told United Press International that they believed Aristide's abduction tale.

"(President) Bush was definitely an accomplice to Aristide's leaving," said 53-year-old janitor Pierre Louis Lucien in front of the presidential palace once occupied by Aristide, now flanked by U.S. Marines.

Others surrounded him nodding in agreement: It was the United States that took away Haiti's first democratically elected president in its 200-year history. The same United States that helped restore him to power in 1994 after a military coup, whisked him away a decade later.

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Can it be true? Was Washington finally fed up with Aristide's perceived incompetence, pulling the plug on his administration?

Though Aristide will likely never gather enough evidence to force the Bush the administration to admit to any undiplomatic meddling, there does seem to be enough proof out there to fuel his conspiracy theory for years to come.

In addition to the eyewitness testimonies, there is the fact that some 50 Marines were deployed to Port-au-Prince a couple weeks before Aristide left. While officially there to protect the embassy and other U.S. interests, a force that size would also serve well to surround the Haitian leader and convince him to board the U.S. charted plane bound for Africa -- no questions asked.

Then there's the economic meddling by the United States and the European Community which in retrospect could look pretty suspicious. In recent years, both worked to block a half billion dollar loan from the Inter-Development Bank to Haiti, money Aristide sorely needed to fund promised schools and fuel a job increase.

From Aristide supporters' point of view, it looks like the United States and its allies were trying to starve Aristide out of power. Washington, of course, counters that the corruption allegations against the ex-president prompted them to prevent the funds from reaching Haitian coffers.

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Suspicion in Washington has prompted some Capitol Hill lawmakers to call for an investigation into precisely what role the United States played in Aristide's departure. Any investigation won't likely get very far, particularly in the coming months as lawmakers will be busying themselves working to get re-elected. Coupled with the war on terror, the question of whether Aristide was yanked from power on the orders of Bush will likely fall by the wayside.

In the meantime, keep in mind that only a few months ago the world watched as a bearded Saddam Hussein was deloused and inspected by a military physician after his regime was forcibly overthrown by a U.S.-led coalition force.

Is it really so implausible that a Bush administration that never really liked Aristide decided to flex its muscle in its own backyard and frog-march Aristide right out of town?

His supporters at home believe Aristide's story. So does this reporter.

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