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Haiti: The Shadows of Terror


Haiti’s civilian leaders, including President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, have recently agreed to a plan for resolving the nation’s political crisis. But the Haitian army remains the key to the plan’s success. For as the army created that crisis late last September when it overthrew Aristide, the first freely elected president in Haiti’s history, so it will determine whether the artfully vague agreement put together in Washington on February 23 will succeed in ending it.

The army at least in size is hardly a formidable force. With only 7,000 troops, a handful of tanks, and antiquated systems of transport and communications, it is trying to keep the lid on an explosive population of six million desperately poor Haitians. So far, it has done so through sheer terror. According to Haitian human rights groups, since the coup the army has murdered 1,500 people, most of them presumed Aristide supporters or members of the popular movements that backed his presidency. Hundreds of others have been arrested and beaten, and the countless popular organizations, the trade unions and peasant and student groups, that had begun to appear in post-Duvalier Haiti have been silenced. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians suspected of being supporters of Aristide have been forced from their homes—most fleeing to Haiti’s mountainous interior, and thousands to a cool welcome in the Dominican Republic or by boat on the dangerous trip toward the United States. Not since the worst days of the Duvalier dictatorship has repression been so widespread and so brutal.

Yet the extent of the brutality also reflects the army’s dread of losing its precarious grip on power. One reason for the coup was the fear that Aristide was rallying his followers to avenge military abuses of the past. That fear has only deepened since the coup, and has been one of the main obstacles to Aristide’s return. “The army is condemned to violence,” Jean-Claude Bajeux, director of the Ecumenical Center for Human Rights and a leading social democrat, told me by telephone from Port-au-Prince. “The situation cannot last. You cannot rule a country with your finger on the trigger.”

The army has reason to fear the popular revenge that, in the absence of a functioning judicial system, has marked the brief moments of political victory for the impoverished Haitians—the fall of Baby Doc in February 1986, the overthrow of the ruthless regime of General Henri Namphy in September 1988, and the defeat in January 1991 of a coup attempt by Duvalierists, who sought to block Aristide from becoming president. Known as dechoukage—the “uprooting” of the old order—these violent episodes have left alleged supporters of the deposed regime hacked or stoned to death. Most recently, the preferred method of lynching has been the lighting of a gasoline-soaked tire around the victim’s neck—a practice called Père Lebrun, after the tire salesman in a Port-au-Prince television commercial who is shown popping his head through his product.

Until now in post-Duvalier Haiti, the people took revenge against remnants of the Tontons Macoutes, the 22,000-strong militia that directed the repression under Duvalier. The army, despite its own history of abuses, has been spared popular reprisal, partly because there has always been a reformist military leader or faction to step in and pledge its renewed commitment to democracy. Indeed, the army earned considerable good will when it supported the December 1990 elections that brought Aristide to power and blocked the coup attempt against him the following month.

Today, however, there is no disguising the army’s central responsibility for the violence against Haitians. Its persistent brutality since the coup of September 30 can be seen as a desperate attempt to postpone its moment of reckoning with the Haitian people by preventing Aristide’s return, or ensuring that, should he come back, his base of popular support would be too weak to pose a threat.

The February 23 agreement is an attempt to address this tension between the army’s fear of revenge and the popular desire for justice. But whether it serves as a foundation for democracy or a pretext for continued military dominance will depend, above all, on the army. Regrettably, the Bush administration, which is best able to bring pressure on the army to stop its repression and to submit to civilian authority, has been preoccupied with sending home the Haitian boat people. To avoid the appearance of delivering refugees to a lawless regime, the administration has downplayed the army’s human rights record. By thus providing political cover for further atrocities it has seriously damaged the prospects for the restoration of elected government in Haiti.


Aristide at first glance seems an unlikely man to set off a popular uprising. Frail and nervous, with big glasses and a gentle manner, the thirty-eight-year-old Catholic priest might be mistaken for an earnest graduate student. The business suits which he has taken to wearing since he entered politics highlight a certain youthful awkwardness. Yet the presence of a crowd will transform him. His powerful speeches, with their passionate populist message, are widely heard on the radio throughout this mostly illiterate country and have earned him a messiah-like following among the Haitian poor.

In his speeches and writings, which draw on liberation theology, he attacks the rich and condemns US influence in Haiti. Predictably this provokes deep anxiety among Haiti’s small group of wealthy merchants and landowners who cling to the privileges they enjoyed under Duvalier. As a radical priest, he was twice attacked by plain-clothes gunmen while army troops looked on, each time escaping by sheer luck. The second attack, in September 1988, as Aristide was celebrating mass at his Church of St. Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince, left thirteen parishioners dead, seventy wounded, and the church burned to the ground. The attackers singled out people wearing white, a symbol of opposition to the army.

The ferocity of the attack on his church gave Haiti’s conservative Catholic hierarchy a pretext to silence him. It tried to transfer him abroad and, when he refused, expelled him from his order: he remained a priest but had no pulpit. Having deprived Aristide of a forum within the church, the hierarchy propelled him into politics. After some months in seclusion, Aristide began attacking the elections scheduled for late 1990 as a US-sponsored sham which failed to address Haiti’s unjust social order.

Few Haitians had taken much interest in the numerous presidential candidates, who included several former Duvalier associates. But when at the last minute Aristide announced his own candidacy, voter registration surged. On December 16, 1990, under the banner Lavalas, the “Flood,” he swept Haiti’s first free and fair elections with an astonishing 67 percent of the vote. No one else received more than 14 percent.

As president, Aristide moved quickly to assert civilian authority over an army that had dominated political life in Haiti since the fall of Baby Doc. In his inaugural address on February 7, 1991, Aristide ordered six of the country’s seven highest-ranking generals—men long associated with the violence and corruption of the old order—to retire. In the ensuing months, Aristide appointed to key positions officers that he believed to be reform-minded. To head the army, Aristide chose a forty-three-year-old colonel, Raoul Cédras. Cédras had supervised the relatively peaceful December 1990 elections, and seemed to represent a new generation of young officers willing to professionalize the army. This apparent devotion to democracy singled him out from past army commanders who, hostile to civilian rule, had crushed Haiti’s first attempt at free elections in November 1987, when fourteen people were murdered at a Port-au-Prince polling place on election day, after a month of machine-gun and arson attacks on electoral offices and campaign headquarters.

Aristide also tried to restrain the notorious “section chiefs” who ran the 555 administrative units of rural Haiti, where four out of five Haitians live. The section chiefs, while formally members of the army, were in fact answerable to no one. Like sheriffs in the Old American West, flanked by dozens of hand-picked deputies, they acted in their jurisdictions as policeman, prosecutor, judge, and tax collector. Aristide renamed the section chiefs “communal police agents,” ordered them to give up their arms, and placed them under the supervision of local civilian prosecutors. Those responsible for violence or corruption were dismissed.

Aristide’s attempt to reform the army and to invigorate civilian institutions helped to reduce the incidence of human rights abuses.1 But resentment grew among military forces that had no experience with elected civilian authority. Most of the grievances later expressed by the rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers who started the September coup against Aristide reflected resentment of their loss of power and distrust of civilian rule.

Among the soldiers’ grievances, however, one deserved attention: the charge that Aristide had himself encouraged popular violence. If one looks at the number of actual lynchings under Aristide, their concern may seem overstated. By the standards of post-Duvalier Haiti, lynchings under Aristide were relatively few: some twenty-five in his first seven months, mostly of common criminal suspects.2 And although Aristide did not use his tremendous moral authority to call for a halt to the killing, there is no evidence that he directly instigated any of them.

But the army with some justification feared Aristide’s willingness to use threats of Père Lebrun as a political weapon. In late July, during the continuous twenty-four-hour trial of the leaders of the January coup attempt, two thousand Haitians stood outside the courthouse echoing Aristide’s demand of a life sentence for the accused, even though Haitian law allows a maximum of fifteen years for plotting against state security, the offense with which they were charged. Under the threat of the angry crowd, many of whom carried tires and gasoline, the court had no choice but to impose life sentences. Speaking of the trial to a group of high school students a few days later, Aristide praised the crowd’s conduct:

Aristide: “For twenty-four hours in front of the courthouse, Père Lebrun became a good firm bed. The people slept on it. Its springs bounced back. They were talking inside the courthouse with the law in their hands; the people also have their own pillows. They have their little matches in their hand, they have their little gasoline not too far away. Did they use it?”

Students: “No.”

Aristide: “That’s because the people respect the Constitution. But does the Constitution tell the people they have a right to forget little Père Lebrun?”

Students: “No.”

Aristide: “Then when they knew inside what was going on outside, inside they had to tread carefully…. When they spoke of fifteen years inside the courthouse, according to the law, outside the people began to clamor for Père Lebrun because the anger of the people began to rise a little. That’s why the verdict came out as a life sentence…. Did the people use Père Lebrun that day?”

Students: “No.”

Aristide: “But if it hadn’t gone well, wouldn’t the people have used Père Lebrun?”

Students: “Yes.”

Aristide: “…You have to know when to use it, how to use it and where to use it.”

  1. 1

    See Haiti: The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record, to which I contributed, by the human rights groups Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, and Caribbean Rights.

  2. 2

    Haiti: The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record provides an accounting of these lynchings.

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