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Gary Younge
Aristide has gone, the death squads are back, and on the streets the looters rule

"It costs 300 Haitian dollars [£21]," said a resident, Jocelyn, as she spread disinfectant outside Christ the King secretarial college on Saturday morning, where a body had lain for two days. "I don't know who it is because they took all his money and papers."

But yesterday the sun rose to a new reality. The president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was gone, and, as word filtered out, the morning was punctuated by gunfire in the capital while others danced on the street in the rebel stronghold of Cap Haitien.

Mr Aristide leaves behind a nation riven by civil war, paralysed by social chaos and crushed by poverty. The man once hailed as the "Haitian Mandela" is now branded a dictator. The priest has become the pariah. This is the second time he has been forced to leave the country at gunpoint, but no one expects him to be returning any time soon.

Those seeking a straightforward trajectory from good to evil will not find one in Mr Aristide. He was never that sort of leader and Haiti has never been that sort of country. The very messianic qualities that greeted his ascent - in 1990, on being first elected, he found the people sweeping the roads before him with palm fronds - contributed to his downfall.

Death squads

The leaders of the death squads Mr Aristide disbanded now control much of the country and prepare to march on the capital. The country that assisted his return 10 years ago, the United States, encouraged him to leave. His political fortunes have been turned upside down.

In a country where the media is either unreliable or unavailable, fear travels faster than fact. Early yesterday morning the chimeres stopped journalists to ask if the rumours about Mr Aristide's departure were true.

Within an hour they were shooting at the press, blaming them for besmirching their president's name.

Two days of relative calm preceded a storm of looting, murder and mayhem. Police guarding Haiti's main prison near the National Palace ran away, some discarding their uniforms to avoid detection. The jail emptied. An estimated 2,000 inmates, including murderers, melted into the crowds. Looters hit a police station in Petionville, an upscale suburb of the capital, carting away police hats, T-shirts, helmets and other bits of police uniforms.

On a main thoroughfare, a barricade of burning tyres sent up a wall of thick black smoke. Aristide supporters added more tyres to fuel the fire.

Haiti has had more than 30 coups and 19 years of American occupation in a 200-year history blighted by dictatorship at home and international isolation.

Mr Aristide, for most of his political life, espoused social justice and practised the politics of authoritarianism. As a radical priest in the 1980s, he called capitalism a "mortal sin" and encouraged his flock in the shantytown of La Saline to do the holy work of fighting repressive regimes. But he also praised the smell of burning tyres - a reference to the "necklacing" where supporters hung flaming tyres on opponents' necks. In 1988 the Salesians expelled him from their order, accusing him of inciting violence and exalting class struggle.

But at a time when liberation theology was in vogue throughout central America, what worried the Catholic church endeared him to the Haitian people. In 1990 he won a democratic election with a landslide.

Before he could be inaugurated he had to first see off a coup attempt. Before his first year was out he had been overthrown and exiled to the US.

Many of those who now oppose him say that those characteristics that made him a popular priest also made him an awful politician; he neither compromised nor made strategic alliances, but laid down the law and expected it to be followed.

"He hasn't changed," said Jean-Claude Bajeux, the director of the Ecumenical Centre for Human Rights, and Mr Aristide's former minister of culture. "We made the mistake of thinking he was a political leader. But he does not know or understand what a political party is for."

Mr Aristide's three-year exile in Washington DC altered his politics and he sought to accommodate US interests. But if his own personal failings sowed the seeds of his demise, then the circumstances of his return fertilised them. He had little leeway to improve the economic conditions of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, while in a nation more accustomed to the bullet than the ballot, he had no army to fall back on.

"If you have a populist without a real agenda, you're feeding a demagogue," commented Lawrence Pezzullo, a former US special envoy to Haiti.

As unrest grew, Mr Aristide relied increasingly on armed gangs. The name of his party, Lavalas, is Creole for torrential floods. In the 2000 legislative elections the party did sweep away everything before it, committing widespread fraud that lead to a freeze on millions of dollars in aid. Despite winning the presidential elections in the autumn of 2000 with 92% of the vote, Mr Aristide had by then lost much of his democratic legitimacy.

It led swiftly led to instability and then insurrection. Last month the rebels seized several towns, many of which the government took back with the help of armed gangs. When, last week, the rebels took the second largest town of Cap Haitien and refused to negotiate, it was clear Mr Aristide had lost his authority.

The question now is what will replace him. The political opposition is a broad-based coalition of students, human rights activists and business people. The armed opposition is run by former death-squad leaders. Having achieved their primary aim of getting rid of Mr Aristide there is little they will agree on.

Meanwhile Port-au-Prince is like a military garrison. The sun has set on Mr Aristide's political career. It remains to be seen whether it will rise on someone better.

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