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The Fall of the Prophet

Lavalas represented something quite different from the FNCD…. The latter was a collection of a variety of movements and political parties and played the role of a stimulus or spur to action, at the same time that it furnished the legal organization necessary to sponsor my candidacy. Lavalas was much, much more: a river with many sources, a flood that would sweep away all the dross, all the after-effects of a shameful past.

It is the lever that will enable us, one day, to stop and to eradicate corruption…

It is clear, from his autobiography but even more from his actions while in office, that President Aristide envisioned not a representative democracy but a “direct” one. “The democracy to be built,” he says, “should be in the image of Lavalas: participatory, uncomplicated, and in permanent motion.” It is a powerful image but it has nothing whatever to do with the constitution under which he was elected. Joining Lavalas, he says, “is not like taking out membership in a political party, paying one’s dues. Instead, it means freely joining a movement that transforms perpetual vassals and servants into free men and women.” He is talking, as he admits, about revolution: “The political mutation was accomplished without armed force,” he writes. “The social revolution remained to be accomplished.” But he seems utterly unaware of the contradiction in trying to attain such a revolution—which would include “a redistribution of wealth, freely discussed”—by the strictly limited means which the election and the constitution had placed in his hands.

Aristide misses the contradiction, of course, because for him it doesn’t exist. When the obvious political course was to use his cabinet appointments to form coalitions with compatible parties, he chose to unveil a cabinet of “non-politicians,” mostly little known associates, ignoring (and out-raging) the party leaders. No matter: who were they, after all, but les candidats whom he had so long despised? But now the Parliament had power, provided by the constitution—for all the greed and vanity of the politicians, they had won office in the same election he had—and the two branches began immediately to squabble. Appointing a prime minister of some prominence might have helped; instead, Aristide chose René Préval, a longtime political associate who, though a well-meaning and decent man, commanded little respect in the legislature, for he was widely viewed as Aristide’s puppet.


Even so, the accomplishments of Aristide’s government were considerable, especially when they are set beside the generally disastrous regimes that preceded and succeeded it. Aristide’s ministers made a start on “cleaning out” the bloated and deeply corrupt government bureaucracy, in which thousands of Haitians receive “zombie checks,” a favorite form of graft whereby paychecks made out in the name of Haitians who are dead are cashed by people with connections within the ministries. This policy, however laudable, also added thousands of embittered civil servants to the ranks of his enemies. He negotiated a deal with a consortium of aid donors, including the United States, France, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, that would have brought several hundred million dollars to Haiti—although, in exchange, he had to agree to the IMF terms, which, after his years of denouncing the multilateral organizations as agents of imperialism that “suck Haiti’s blood,” caused a good deal of consternation and protest among his supporters.

Most important, he managed, by winning his victory over the “Macoute sector” and by managing for a time to improve relations with the Haitian army, greatly to reduce the nightly killing and mayhem that during the preceding few years had become a regular feature of Haitian life. His easing of l’insécurité, which allowed people, especially poor people, to walk abroad at night without fear of attack, deeply improved life for the great majority of Haitians.

By the summer of 1990, however, the strains in the system were beginning to show. The struggle within the legislature had become protracted and bitter—over the president’s right to appoint Supreme Court judges without approval; over his power to “cleanse” the bureaucracy; over, in general, his freedom of action in what was meant to be a system of highly constraining checks and balances. The congressmen wanted money and jobs, and many of them had no more use for the constitution than Aristide had; but they understood the powers it granted them and they reminded him at every opportunity that the people whose name the president so regularly invoked had elected them as well. In many cases he might have been able to win their favor by offering jobs and other perquisites, or even by treating them with some of the elaborate consideration they felt their positions demanded. But he mostly looked upon them with a contempt that was familiar from the days when he was the fiery “popular leader” and they were les candidats he despised.

Soon even members of what was supposed to be his own party were openly attacking him. As the months wore on, and the work of governing, of overcoming the constant bickering and putting a program through, became more and more frustrating, President Aristide came to rely increasingly on direct appeals to the people. To the extent he failed to build political strength within the institutions of the government, he turned to the masses that had always been his strength. And the more he did so, the more fearful became those who relied on the institutions of established power: the officers and the elite.

Aristide’s relations with the military had meantime begun to sour. By now, he had raised Cédras to the position of army commander, but he delayed in sending the nomination to the legislature, putting the officer in a difficult position—did he have authority or not?—and causing rumbles of discontent from within the officer corps. Already he had forced back into the army a number of officers who had been cashiered in recent years; many of them were deeply unpopular with the other officers, particularly the man Aristide appointed to the key position of head of the police force, Pierre Cherubin. During the summer, when enlisted men and sailors had rebelled against their commanding officers at several bases around the capital, the president had generally supported them, on occasion intervening personally to remove the officers in question. This earned him considerable popularity within the lower ranks, a popularity that the officers deeply feared. Finally, he had begun to create his own civilian security force, a contingent of well-armed bodyguards that would be trained by French and Swiss experts and would be loyal only to him. The prospect of another armed force, even a small one, deeply disturbed many within the military.

And then, on July 29, the date François Duvalier had designated National Security Volunteers [Tontons Macoutes] Day, Roger Lafontant and most of his accomplices in the January 7 coup attempt were brought to trial. For all his claims that he was the “anti-Macoute candidate,” Aristide had done little to bring to justice those who had been responsible for the large-scale killings of the post-Duvalier years, contenting himself with appointing a presidential commission. (When by the summer, it had done nothing, he appointed a second.) The trial of Roger Lafontant, therefore, became a symbol of the Aristide government’s commitment to justice.

In the event, the trial became something of a farce. Public threats of “up-rooting” made it impossible for Lafontant and the other defendants to find attorneys willing to take their cases; the court finally appointed attorneys only a few days before the trial. The trial went on for twenty-one straight hours in a circus-like atmosphere of violent intimidation and riot. Enormous crowds of lavalassiens engulfed the court house, young men brandishing tires and matches prominent among them. When the accused rose to testify—the crowds could watch the proceedings on televisions set up on the courthouse steps—the mobs began to howl and scream and push toward the courthouse doors, while young men set several tires alight. Although Lafontant was charged with a crime that under Haitian law could be punished by a maximum of fifteen years in prison, the judge, clearly intimidated by the crowd outside—who themselves were responding to open calls from President Aristide—sentenced Lafontant and seventeen others to life at hard labor.

A week later, at a rally of students, President Aristide delivered what became one of his best-known speeches. From the scene, the Radio Métro-pole reporter told listeners that the president “thinks that without popular pressure and the Père Lebrun threat”—the threat of necklacing, that is—“in front of the courthouse, the sentence to life would not have been chosen in Lafontant’s case. The head of state,” the reporter went on, “explained that the Constitution did not provide for the necklacing torture but it does not bar this practice.” The station then went on to offer a substantial excerpt from President Aristide’s comments to the students, many of which took the form of question and answer:

Was there Père Lebrun inside the courthouse?

No! [the crowd shouts back]

Was there Père Lebrun in front of the courthouse?


Did the people use Père Lebrun?


Did the people forget it?


Do they have the right to forget it?


Do not say that I said it!


In front of the courthouse, for 24 hours, Père Lebrun became a good firm bed [a Creole phrase for a cushion or a support]. Inside the courthouse, the Justice Ministry had the law in its hands, the people had their good firm bed outside. The people had their little matches in their hands. They had gas nearby. Did they use it?


That means that the people respect…?

The Constitution!

As he had done so many times before, from the pulpit of St. Jean Bosco and elsewhere, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was using his strong voice to rally and teach the people. But now he was President of the Republic and his audience was supposed to include all the Haitians, many of whom could not be expected to view these particular efforts with understanding. As he told an interviewer later, he wanted Haiti to have what it didn’t now possess: “a judicial mechanism that produces justice.” How else, he argued, to create one but with the help of the people themselves? They would serve, he hoped, to counter-balance the structure of corruption built on money and privilege. The people, he said,

must now become a force of credibility, capable of exerting legitimate pressure on the judicial system, but without threatening it, so that when the judge knows that the people are there, united awaiting justice, the judge can feel strengthened to render justice and not succumb to the weight of money or the pressures that will come upon him.21

President Aristide sought to make of his followers, the great flood outside the courthouse, a “force of credibility.” He sought, as he always had, to shape them, to raise them up by his words, But to many Haitians, those words with their implication that deadly violence could be unleashed, did not seem at all reassuring coming from an elected President of the Republic, the man who was supposed to have responsibility to govern his people through the constitution and the established mechanisms of power. He told the student rally:

  1. 21

    See Anne-Christine d’Adesky, “Titid! President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” Interview, October 1991, p. 90.

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