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The Fall of the Prophet

You who have plotted against me,

You who have plotted against the Haitian people:

Bishop Paolo Romeo, Bishop Gayot, Bishop Ligondé, Bishop Kébreau and the rest,

Let me look you in the eye,

Please don’t be ashamed….

I have come to tell you: I love you, too….

The church is rich, thanks to us, the poor,

Who have agreed to be part of one sole body….

Alone, we are weak.

Together, together we are strong.

Together, we are the flood.

A Creole word rich in connotations, Lavalas evokes not only “flood,” as it is usually translated, but its near cognate, “avalanche”; for poor Haitians the word evokes the image of the sweeping rains that spawn the torrents that course through the enormous slums, flooding the tin-and-scrapwood hovels and sweeping away the garbage and the filth that clog the pathways. To the images of “uprooting,” of “pulling up the manioc,” of “the clean-up operation”—to all these homely tropes of Haiti’s popular movement Aristide now added Lavalas, an image that transformed the poor millions of Haiti into a surging wave that could not be forestalled, a revolution that was unstoppable and inevitable:

Let the flood descend, the flood of

Poor peasants and poor soldiers, the flood of the poor jobless multitudes…

But the flood did not descend, not right away, and Aristide, expelled from his order, was left to enter the wilderness. During the late summer of 1989 I visited him at Lafanmi Selavi, his home for street children in a pleasant upper-class neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, watched as he conducted a Spanish class—repeating the verb tenses, writing them on the black-board, encouraging with infinite patience the members of the class, who ranged from seven-year-old foundlings, their heads shaved to prevent lice, to sixty-year-old retirees—and then looked on as he quietly discussed political strategy with a group of young radio reporters.

When we spoke, however, I was startled by his bitterness. He railed against the Haitian Church; denounced the bishops by name; spoke angrily of Obando y Bravo, the conservative archbishop of Managua. In answer to my question about the depredations of General Avril—who, after almost a year atop his military regime, showed no signs of yielding power—Aristide showed a defiant and angry faith. “It is good,” he said, “it is good that this man is cruel and greedy and brutal, for the more the mask falls, the more this Macoute regime lets show its evil face, the sooner the people will rise up and sweep it away.”13

By then, Avril had narrowly survived one coup and was struggling to forestall a second by spreading broadly among his officers the fruits of corruption that could still be extracted from the country’s handful of state-owned enterprises. He struggled also to induce the Americans to restore their aid and, by promising elections and making use of a considerable ability to project (at least to American officials) an aura of “competence” and “pragmatism,” he managed to attract a trickle of money. But he could find no way out of the political impasse. When the unions and mass organizations called strikes that fall, General Avril cracked down, displaying the battered faces of several popular young leaders on national television. In January 1990, when competition among various of his officers had grown intense and murderous, he cracked down again, and made the mistake of attacking not only the popular leaders but several of les candidats, the leaders of the more traditional political parties, some of whom had made use of their years of exile to build strong contacts abroad.

In the face of international protests, the general backed down. By March 1990 he was finished, swept from power by a campaign of protests that, like those of the summer of 1987, were a product of collaboration between the popular leaders and les candidats. The final push was applied by the new American envoy, an unusually able diplomat named Alvin Adams, Jr.,14 who visited the general’s villa in the hills above the capital for a pre-dawn heart-to-heart and persuaded Avril, with the help of—so the legend has it—the example of Richard Nixon during Watergate, that the time had come for the general to move on.

During those final days, leaders on the far left had openly called for Aristide’s appointment as “provisional president.” For his part, Aristide called for an “anti-Macoute civilian government.” In March 1990, power passed to a rather jerry-built civilian regime in which Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, a little-known Supreme Court judge with mildly Duvalierist connections, presided as provisional president, advised by a quasi-legislative “Council of State” made up of leaders from the unions, the private sector, and other parts of “civil society.” Though Trouillot promised early elections, Father Aristide was adamant: “Justice against the Macoute criminals must happen before elections,” he said. The provisional government must “take up its responsibilities,…[for] the authorities have sufficient resources in hand to make judicial proceedings.” Three months after the provisional regime had come to power, when soldiers launched a murderous attack on a meeting of the Council of State in which two people were killed, Aristide offered some public advice to the American ambassador, among others, advising him to.

speak of elections after justice, please. Let’s begin together by disarming the Macoutes. When you speak to us of elections while there is a question of justice, keep in mind that you are implicated, keep in mind that you deserve to be treated as a criminal when right in front of you these armed bandits are spitting death.

This was the paradox that has haunted Haiti’s politics since the fall of Duvalier: how to manage a peaceful transition of power. If “the structures of corruption” remained firmly in place, as Aristide believed, how was it possible to hold a truly free election? And yet, if not by elections, how could those “structures” be removed?

Aristide’s answer, in 1990 as in 1985, was definitive: only “a popular mobilization against the criminal Macoutes” could cleanse the country of Duvalierist corruption. Haitians still cried out, he said, for “a revolution that will change Haiti for once and for all,” as he had put it the summer before. An election, even a fair one, would inevitably leave the old order firmly in place.

Like so many of his prophesies, this one would be fully realized. Indeed, he would prove it right himself, the following fall and winter, when the revolutionary stepped forward before the nation and revealed himself to be a democrat after all.

4.

In announcing he would enter as a candidate in the “official” electoral contest, as he finally did on October 18, 1990, less than two months before the vote, Jean-Bertrand Aristide contradicted much of what he had said and stood for during his five-year public life. If his followers couldn’t have cared less about this—they were wildly enthusiastic, for they saw their hero at long last moving to take the power he deserved—then Father Aristide certainly did: his ambivalence about the decision lends an air of defensiveness and self-justification to his account that makes it (together with the story of his decision to go ahead with the mass that became the St. Jean Bosco massacre) much the most interesting passage of his autobiography.

We”—the popular movement—“were in danger of falling into a trap,” Aristide writes:

The executive, no doubt egged on by imperialism, was trying to keep the people at a distance from the electoral scene. By moving toward a boycott or toward more radical measures, we would cede the ground to others, to some Manigat who would be more easily elected and more solidly entrenched in power.

Of course, this had always been the obvious contradiction inherent in the boycott strategy: if the popular movement refused to take part and the elections went ahead, anyway the result would have excluded that movement. What was different now, and what Aristide acknowledges in several particularly tortuous passages, was the foreign sponsorship of the elections:

The fact was that international opinion demanded these elections, and in any event Ertha [Pascal-Trouillot] was not Namphy. Letting the Macoutes roam around and be active was not necessarily putting them in the saddle, but it put pressure on the people to abstain from voting and to allow the bourgeoisie alone to choose among acceptable candidates.

In other words, the provisional government had not moved to arrest “the armed bandits spitting death” and render “justice” to them, because, according to Aristide, it hoped the groups and parties on the left would boycott the vote if the killers were allowed to run free. And yet, weeks before Aristide declared his candidacy, many of these groups had already announced that they would take part; indeed, though he contends (in only one of the contradictions in his account) that “the multiplication of opposition parties and candidates left scarcely any chance for the left,” barely two weeks before Aristide’s announcement, the National Front for Change and Democracy, or FNCD, an umbrella group of the left, had put forward as its candidate for president the school-teacher and intellectual Victor Benoît—a man who, it is true, commanded nowhere near the popularity of Aristide but who, given the nationwide organizations grouped under the FNCD, might well have won. Had Aristide agreed to campaign for him, he probably could not have lost. In the event, Aristide displaced him when he decided to run under the FNCD’s banner.

Why did he run? Why, after denouncing, as recently as June, the “presidentialism, this incurable sickness” of Haitian politicians; after declaring, as recently as September that “American imperialism” would make impossible fair elections under “the werewolf,” President Pascal-Trouillot—why, after all this, did he decide in October to throw his hat into the ring?

One answer is that he realized the elections would be observed by representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States—an “interference” in the country’s affairs that had elicited vivid denunciations of “imperialism” from Haitian politicians:

In October, I had had a presentiment of the importance of international opinion. Hundreds of observers, whose probity could not be called into question, would be present. This time, the person elected could boast of a legitimacy almost beyond discussion. Alas for those who were absent!

Without the hundreds of foreign observers, and the active involvement of the United States, Canada, France, and Venezuela that made those observers possible, Aristide could not have won an election in Haiti; for though his popular following was overwhelming, the traditional Haitian political class would never have let him win—they would have blocked him, either by scuttling the vote, as in 1987, or by ballot tampering or, most likely, by somehow preventing him running in the first place. “In Haiti,” as a Haitian diplomat and former Duvalier minister had told me, “the power in place always has a say in who will take power.” But not this time; it is only one of the ironies of Aristide’s career that his decision to run, and his spectacular victory, were made possible by the very “imperialism” he had denounced so eloquently for so many years.

  1. 13

    Interview with the author, Port-au-Prince, August 1989.

  2. 14

    In his airport arrival remarks in Port-au-Prince in November, Adams had quoted a Creole proverb—Bourik chaje pa kanpe: “A loaded donkey can’t stand still”—which was universally taken to be a criticism of Avril’s refusal to let Haiti, “loaded” and ready for democracy, move to elections. The remark earned Adams a good deal of popularity among Haitians—unheard of for a foreign diplomat, let alone an American one—most of whom hence-forth knew him only by his nickname, Loaded Donkey.

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