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The Fall of the Prophet

Mobs stormed the Vatican embassy, seized the papal nuncio—who happened to be a new man, not Father Aristide’s old antagonist—and forced him into the street, where they stripped and humiliated him and beat his secretary. They sacked and burned the nunciature; burned the building that housed the Haitian bishops’ conference; sacked the house of Pascal-Trouillot’s interior minister; sacked and burned the residence of Archbishop Ligondé. (The archbishop himself, who was thought to have invited the coup attempt with his New Year’s sermon, barely escaped capture and managed to flee the country.) The mobs also burned the landmark wooden Cathedral, one of the oldest in the Americas. Across the capital, mobs set upon monuments of “Macoutism,” including offices of a well-known right-wing magazine and the house of at least one presidential candidate, as well as stores and businesses that supposedly belonged to “Macoutes”; they proceeded to loot them, then burn them down. By the time it was over, scores of people had been killed, many by the so-called Père Lebrun, the practice—named for an image in a local tire advertisement—by which a tire is placed around the victim’s neck, filled with gasoline, and then set afire. Estimates of the number of dead ranged from seventy to one hundred.

Lavalas, the Flood, had triumphed. In the general celebration, many Haitians, including several of his close advisers, urged Father Aristide, who had barely escaped capture by Lafontant’s agents, not to wait for the inauguration on February 7; he should simply assume power. Having been elected, he would now be carried to power on the shoulders of the people, swept into the Palace by a popular revolution. Aristide broached the idea to at least one embassy and, faced with a strong protest that he respect “the orderly transfer of power,” he discarded it. Now, two days after the coup attempt, he took to the radio to try to calm his followers:

Brothers and sisters, a promise is a promise. I had promised you that Mrs. Ertha Pascal-Trouillot would be back in her office as the provisional president. I wish her good luck….

I note that you are at the same time happy and sad, happy because Roger Lafontant and other terrorists like him are in jail, and sad, because he and his accomplices are not in your hands. I understand your desire to catch the powerful Macoutes today so that they do not destroy you tomorrow. This is legitimate.

Be careful, however, to avoid the trap of provocation. Beware of evil persons who are doing wrong, but accusing you. Watch for them, capture them, block them, prevent them from creating disorder…

We, the elected president of the Republic of Haiti, are protesting energetically against impunity and injustice. The fires of the nuncio and the ancient Cathedral…and other painful scenes offer a hideous show. People, the shrewd observer can recognize the explosion of popular anger in the face of impunity for the terrorist….18

As he had told me almost five years before, “One must know when to look at the acts of the people and judge them as a psychologist, not as a priest.” Not a political party or an organized group, Lavalas was simply the people, and they formed his strength. They had saved his life, his presidency. He could not denounce them, as some, including the State Department spokesman in Washington, urged him to do. He had only, he felt, to talk to them, to teach them, to implore them to be “vigilant without revenge.”


Though it came before his inauguration, the attempted coup of January 7 may have been the most important event of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency. It isolated the Macoutes politically and set before senior officers a powerful demonstration of the new president’s popular strength. For though only a handful of military men had accompanied Lafontant into the Palace, the officer corps (various accounts in the American press notwithstanding) had not exactly “defended democracy”:19 Lafontant had occupied the Palace for more than eleven hours unmolested before the officers, prodded by foreign diplomats and by their dawning realization that the people might well turn on them if they didn’t act, had moved against him.

On Inauguration Day, February 7, 1991, five years to the day after the overthrow of Duvalier, Aristide capitalized on this newfound political strength by including, in an eloquent speech, an order to retire seven senior officers, including six generals. It was a brilliant coup de théâtre, a symbol of defiant popular triumph. But it was only the capstone. For days, the denizens of the bidonvilles—the proud constituents of Lavalas—had been refurbishing their slums, picking the garbage from the dirt pathways, painting their scrapwood hovels. Never, it seemed, had the capital been so clean. On the walls, in the windows, on the storefronts—everywhere was the face of Aristide.

In the days after the jubilant inaugural, the new president performed one feat after another. He flung open the doors of Fort Dimanche, the dreaded Duvalier prison, and let the people wander through to gaze at the torture chambers where so many thousands had died. He invited the poorest of the poor to come to the Palace, where on the vast green lawns he served them a copious meal of rice and beans. Or rather, he had his soldiers serve them—soldiers, serving the poor! It was unheard of in the history of the country. And there, in the midst of it all, stood the President of the Republic, speaking softly in the ear of a deformed and crippled young beggar, whom he held tightly in his embrace.

For anyone who followed events in Haiti, these scenes could not help but inspire happiness and wonder. After five years, the popular movement had triumphed. And yet, it was not quite so simple. Aristide had reached the Palace, but before him lay the task that confronted every Haitian president: to attain power, somehow to master the entrenched system that had dominated the country for two centuries. This demanded a much more delicate political strategy. For though Aristide had achieved what he called an “overwhelming mandate,” this was rather misleading. It was true that he had won two thirds of the vote; it was equally true that the overwhelming majority of Haiti’s rich and powerful numbered themselves among the other third. The old order remained; no revolution had swept it away. Now the new president had two choices: he could move to ignite such a revolution, or he could try to accomplish his goals within the political structure that had brought him to the Palace.

To his credit, he chose the second course, but he proved singularly unfitted, by temperament and by experience, to follow it. For the political structure he inherited consisted of a decrepit and barely functioning judiciary; a plethora of political parties run by headstrong and vain “leaders” for whom compromise was synonymous with surrender; a deeply suspicious officer corps jealous of its prerogatives; and a small, well-educated, and very rich elite who, when they gazed on the face of their new president and his supporters, found it difficult to feel anything but disgust and fear. To their collective memory of the horrors of Haitian history—which extended back to the early Sixties, when François Duvalier’s noiriste followers (also wildly enthusiastic and brutal, also drawn from the slums of the capital) murdered their relatives and sacked their businesses; back to their grandfathers’ time, in 1883, when, during Bloody Week, the great black nationalist President Louis-Félicité Lysius Salomon loosed his poor black followers on the capital’s business district, which they sacked and burned, murdering anyone they found; back to the 1850s, when the Emperor Faustin I, an illiterate and enormously fat black soldier, had used his zinglins, his militia formed of black peasants, to terrorize the elite—to this stock of images were now added those of January 7, 1991, the pictures, televised again and again, of the looting and the killing and the burning in the center of Port-au-Prince, and the reluctance of the army—their protector, after all, for wasn’t it their money that flowed into the pockets of the officers?—to do anything about it.20

It was this political class that Aristide had, if not to win to his side, at least to calm. He had to do so not only for strategic reasons—for though the army might be cowed for the present, they retained the ultimate power to threaten his overthrow, which is how, after all, the great majority of Haitian presidents have left office—he had to do so for tactical reasons as well. For it fell to Aristide to govern under a constitution that had as its presiding idea not the facilitating of the programs of an extremely popular leader but the prevention of the rise of another dictator. Next to Aristide himself, the 1987 constitution was the popular movement’s proudest achievement, and it is only one of many ironies of his story that when he took office in February 1991, with the great ambition of launching a “social revolution,” it was the constitution that stood squarely in his way.

The document envisioned, contrary to almost two hundred years of Haitian history, a weak executive, tied down by more checks and balances than the ropes that bound Gulliver. The president would not even run his government day-to-day; this task would fall to the prime minister, who would be chosen from the ranks of the majority party of the National Assembly. The legislature in Haiti, very rarely more than a rubber stamp (during this century anyway), would now be powerful, in some matters dominant. Among other things, the legislators would approve the commander of the army; and it would be extremely difficult for the president to remove him before the end of his three-year term. Tampering within the command structure, a favorite pastime of Duvalier, was out of the question; the army had been thoroughly insulated from executive power.

The constitution, in other words, had little to do with the reality of governing Haiti, though it said much about the recent history of the country. (The attentive reader of its provisions could almost reconstruct the tactics Duvalier had used, working backward from the articles designed expressly to prevent their repetition.) To make the system function at all would have required the talents of a master politician, a man skilled at building and maintaining coalitions within the legislature, for example. Aristide may have won two thirds of the vote but the party under whose banner he had run had won only twenty-seven of eight-three seats in the lower house, and only thirteen of twenty-seven in the Senate. In fact, his “party,” the FNCD, was not really a party at all but a loose coalition of popular organizations, unions and quasi-parties that, in its structure, or lack of it, had little to do with parliamentary government. Moreover, Aristide did not consider the FNCD to be his party at all. There could be no question, he writes, of “my being the candidate of a single party, no matter how close it might be to my own ideas; I could not even represent a group of parties.” Parties were against everything he had stood for; they represented everything he despised. He needed no party; after all, he had Lavalas.

  1. 18

    Haiti Radio-Inter, January 9, 1993, as recorded and translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

  2. 19

    See, among many examples, “A General Chooses Democracy in Haiti,” an editorial in The New York Times, January 9, 1991.

  3. 20

    Though Aristide certainly did not order it, and though Lafontant provoked it, it was certainly lavalassiens who committed most of the pillaging and killing in their leader’s defense. Which is why it makes little sense for America’s Watch and other human rights organizations to attribute, in what is otherwise a thorough and judicious report, the deaths that occurred to Ertha Pascal-Trouillot and her administration:

    The number of incidents of summary justice by crowds under Aristide was roughly equal to the number under the first seven months of the government of…Trouillot, and considerably less than the surge of bloodletting that followed the coup attempt of January 1991, during the last month of the Trouillot government [my emphasis].

    True, Aristide was not yet in office, but if the killings are to be deposited in the “account” of anyone, it certainly shouldn’t be in Trouillot’s; as a political fact, they must belong to Aristide. Whether, or to what extent, they were justified, of course, is quite another question. See “The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record,” A Report by Americas Watch, The National Coalition For Haitian Refugees and Caribbean Rights, Vol 3, Issue 12 (November 1, 1991), p. 6.

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