PREVAL ON THE STUMP
PETITE REVIERE DE L'ARTIBONITE, HAITI
TRUDGING along the pot-holed roads of the Artibonite Valley, supporters of Rene Garcia Preval cheer him through a wall of dust kicked up by a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles, shouting, ''President Preval, we love you.''
The longtime political activist, widely expected to win Haiti's presidential elections Sunday, frequently jumps into the crowd to shake hands or give hugs.
''Work with the local government representatives, tell them what your problems are: health, water, jobs,'' he shouts from the top of a car.
''We have to decide together how to solve the problems. We have to organize.''
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, barred from running again, has endorsed Mr. Preval, whom he calls his ''twin.''
When President Aristide was returned to office in 1994 with American help, he said casting the ballot for his successor would even more important for the future of democracy than his own 1991 election, which was aborted by a military coup.
This Sunday, Haiti's 3 million registered voters will have a chance to prove him right by choosing among 14 candidates. The new president will serve a five-year term beginning Feb. 7.
For this small Caribbean nation - the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and battered by waves of military and elitist rule - the elections will give a wobbly democracy a chance to strengthen its legs.
For the international community, especially President Clinton, the election is the culmination of a $3 billion investment by the United States and a three-year effort to restore democracy.
The United Nations Mission in Haiti, which took over stabilizing Haiti after the invasion, is pulling out by Feb. 29, unless the new government requests that they stay on. Members of UNMIH will assist the Haitian police in providing security for the 10,228 polling places. Nearly 500 international observers, including members of the US Congress, are expected.