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The Fall of the Prophet

What is most interesting about Aristide’s account is the difficulty he had, and clearly still has, in explaining his own motives. This reluctance bespeaks an ambivalence about official power and the apparatus of politics that goes with it, an ambivalence that he brought with him—disastrously, as it turned out—when he was elected to the highest office. He understands the demand for power as a direct contradiction of the purity of his motives. His expulsion by the Salesian order, he says, “had not changed my Christian conscience, blunted my fidelity to the dispossessed…”

Some people expected that I would join a political party…or, better still, that I would start my own. That would only have given credibility to the accusation uttered here and there about my immoderate taste for power, a power that, according to others, I wanted to acquire at any price.

These “others” assume this of him because it is almost always true of any Haitian with the least shred of popularity, whatever the source. Politics drench Haitian society, as Leslie Manigat, a much better political scientist than he was a president, once explained.

Everything is political and may become involved in the struggle for power. All efforts to keep certain sectors of public life out of politics have failed. Thus, perhaps nowhere else in the world are physicians and lawyers more engaged in active politics. The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump…. Politics extends its tentacles even into private life. Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him….15

The elite and the army took political ambition for granted; what they could not abide was Aristide’s professions of disinterestedness, for they regarded this as the rankest hypocrisy, and it made them fear him as unpredictable and reckless.

Father Aristide is certainly a much more complicated man than portrayed in his enemies’ caricatures of him. His dark view of the reality of Haitian politics, of the sectarianism and unfettered ambition that have poisoned the country’s leaders for nearly two centuries, is difficult to contest; and if his own version of his decisions reveals a grave conflict between what he knew about the corruptions of power and what in the end he was willing to do to get it, it is because there is a conflict. “Presidentialism is a sickness that ‘political’ doctors can easily find in Haiti,” he writes:

The diagnosis is easy, but the remedy is less sure. Our history is full of that epidemic, the principal symptom of which is a ravenous desire on the part of the patient.

The presidency of Haiti always means power, honor, and money, precisely the reverse of what we were trying to achieve: to be of service to others, and especially to those who are most destitute.

In the end, he says he has no choice. He is, after all, merely the instrument of the people, their servant:

Titid ak pèp la se marasa” [“Titid and the people are married”]. If I were to refuse, they would regard it as a betrayal, as they would have done had I obeyed the orders for my exile in 1987 and 1988, or deferred the Mass at St. Jean Bosco, however gruesome it turned out to be. My candidacy was part of their reflexive self-defense…. [my emphasis]

As he says in a discussion with a fellow priest, “We had served the people together: would we not be betraying them by letting them climb the last steps toward demoocracy alone? Was political responsibility the extension of the prophetic role of our communities?”—a comment that offers a clue to the depth of his disagreement with the organized Church, from the Pope on down.

Unfortunately Haiti’s politics and its machinery of government had nothing whatever to do with “service to others” or helping “those who are most destitute.” Despite the coups d’état and revolutions and the entire colorful epic of political struggle that is the country’s history, the underlying reality of Haiti has remained remarkably constant for nearly two centuries: the machinery of power, no matter who controls it, exists to funnel the resources of the country from the many to the few—and it is the pastime of those few to fight over who will control the funnel. Though he could not admit it even to himself, in entering the race for president Aristide had declared his intention to join the ranks of those fighting for that funnel; but as the traditional players well knew, he had in mind, once he had won it, to do something very different with it.


On October 18, 1990, Aristide submitted himself to “the will of the people,” as he put it, and his entry into the race brought an enormous surge in voter registration. Around the country he drew huge crowds, and though the “Macoute sector” spoke darkly of apocalyptic violence, only one serious incident marred the campaign (a grenade attack after an Aristide rally in Petionville that killed five people). The presence of the hundreds of international observers and the determination of the principal embassies in Port-au-Prince helped to insure that the massacre of 1987 was not repeated. So did the work of a Haitian army officer charged with arranging security for the vote, a rather quiet, almost academic-seeming, colonel from a well-connected family named Raoul Cédras. Perhaps as important as any of these factors was a widespread disbelief among the Haitian elite and the officer corps of the Haitian army that the United States would ever let someone like Aristide actually take power.

But times had changed. Events in Moscow that summer had made Castro a much less threatening figure for the makers of American policy. Stability was gradually supplanting anticommunism as the central American concern in the Caribbean. And so, on December 16, in an almost carnival atmosphere of jubilation, Haitians cast their ballots in an election that, apart from considerable problems in getting ballots to the polling places, went forward without challenge or incident. The following morning, reporters listening to a briefing by a United Nations official began, one by one, to cock their heads toward the window, from which an indescribable humming, an emanation of white noise not unlike that of the seacoast heard from a distance, had gradually become audible. News of the preliminary vote count had come over the radio. What we heard was the sound of hundreds of thousands of Haitians screaming all at once in their joy. They poured into the streets, dancing, singing, swigging rum; every car horn in Port-au-Prince, it seemed, was honking at once. The celebration went on all day and late into the night.

Aristide had won 67.5 percent of the vote; his closest challenger was Marc Bazin, a former World Bank official with good contacts at the US embassy, with just over 14 percent. The figures were a shock—to the embassy, where many diplomats expected no candidate would gain a majority in the first round; to the well-to-do; and to the officer corps. But the hopes of both the officers and many among the elite were dashed when the American ambassador and the assistant secretary of state offered statements almost immediately recognizing the legitimacy of Aristide’s victory.

The reaction was not long in coming. On January 2, François-Wolff Ligondé, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince and Father Aristide’s old antagonist, stood in the Cathedral and delivered an extraordinary sermon in which he declared that “fear is sending a chill down the spines of many fathers and mothers.” Denouncing “opportunists ready to swallow up everything” the archbishop brandished the specter of a coming “authoritarian political regime.” “Is socialist Bolshevism going to triumph?” he asked gravely, gazing out at his congregation, which included the officers in their ribbons and most of the other powerful of the country. “Is the country heading toward a new dictatorship?”


One week later, on the evening of January 6, 1991, Haitians were awakened by the sound of explosions and automatic weapons fire coming from the palace. Shortly before one o’clock in the morning, they heard over their radios the quavering voice of President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot resigning her office, and then, a few moments later, the raspy, somewhat mocking voice of Dr. Roger Lafontant, master of repression and torture, proudly self-professed Macoute, announcing that he had assumed power as “provisional president” in order to rescue Haitians from the results of elections he called a “masquerade” and a “scathing insult.”

Word spread instantly through the slums of Port-au-Prince as Haitians went door-to-door, rousing their neighbors. Even as Lafontant busied himself within the Palace, telephoning army officers and issuing orders, the streets of the capital began to fill with angry people. They knew Lafontant well: as a staunch supporter of François Duvalier, as his son’s interior minister in 1973 and again from 1982 to 1985. Round-faced, big-bellied, bald-headed, with a hearty laugh and a mocking wit, the fifty-five-year-old gynecologist had long been a Doppelgänger, a kind of “dark twin” to Aristide; for it had been Lafontant who had first sent the young priest from the country in 1982; Lafontant who had given the country a vivid image of the most bloodthirsty “Macoutism” (which included the habit of dropping into “interrogation” sessions to watch and cheer on the torturers),16 Lafontant whom the priest could point to, after the doctor’s return from exile in July 1990, as the justification for his entering the election. The “danger was clear, already identified,” he writes, “it even had a name: Lafontant.”

Now Lafontant had seized power; but while he made his telephone calls from the Palace, and the army officers mostly sat on their hands and waited, the people took to the streets. By dawn, when the American ambassador had finally succeeded in reaching the army commander by telephone and was beseeching him to “uphold the constitutional order,” smoke was rising over the capital from burning barricades; by nine o’clock, when the officers finally led an assault on the Palace, their soldiers had to make their way through an ocean of tens of thousands of angry Haitians, who were waving machetes and pikes and bellowing for Lafontant’s head. When, after a very noisy but mostly theatrical gun battle, the troops succeeded in taking the Palace—the Macoute leader was discovered cowering in an elevator—they had all they could do to prevent Lafontant’s being lynched on the spot.

Furious crowds went on a rampage. A local radio reporter, making his way slowly through the neighborhoods that day, offered his listeners this account of the ravaged city:

Barricades are spaced at 20-meter intervals, some very high, others feeding strong fires. The population, in a terrified state, refuses passage….

Before us Delmas [Road] is dark with people, smoke, and barricades. Far away on the mountain to the right, the house of the apostolic nuncio is burning.

On Nazon Street, an apocalyptic scene awaits us. We count six burned corpses. The horror mounts. Eight dismembered bodies lie in the street. Former partisans of Roger Lafontant did not escape the fury of popular vindication. They were slaughtered with knives and pikes. Some were eviscerated, others emasculated. Before our horrified eyes a taxi driver, with passengers inside the car, drives over the bodies…17

  1. 15

    See Leslie F. Manigat, Haiti of the Sixties: Object of International Concern (The Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research, 1964), pp. 23–24.

  2. 16

    Sylvio Claude, a popular presidential candidate who later died at the hands of lavalassiens during the coup against Aristide, told me that during Jean-Claude’s rule, while his men were beating and torturing Claude, Lafontant liked to drop by to pass the time. “He would watch, and he would make jokes and laugh,” Claude said. “It was like the Romans—you know, laughing as the lions devoured the Christians.”

  3. 17

    Radio Métropole, broadcast January 8, 1991, as recorded and translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

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