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The Fall of the Prophet

When the people heard: life in prison, the people forgot their little gas and little Père Lebrun. Was Père Lebrun used on that day?


If it had not gone well, would the people have used Père Lebrun?


Therefore, when through education one learns to to write Père Lebrun and how to think Père Lebrun, one does not use it when it is unnecessary….22

To his immediate audience, the message may have been a moderate one. But it was nonetheless the speech of a revolutionary, a leader who depended on the force of his followers to move and pressure a structure of power that he could not yet control. As another Métropole reporter told his listeners from the youth rally, the “head of state feels only a complete revolution could change things in Haiti.” Though he went on to say that “literacy is a necessary step” toward achieving such a revolution and pointed out “the important results obtained through literacy campaigns in…Cuba and Nicaragua,” it is unlikely that many of his listeners around the country heard much beyond the word “revolution,” for to them that was what their president represented.

By now, relations with the legislature had reached a crucial point. In August, the legislative leaders summoned Prime Minister René Préval for a vote on what was, in effect, a measure of no confidence that, if successful, would have unseated the Préval government. On the day of the vote, thousands of chanting Aristide supporters surrounded the Palais Législatif, displaying stacks of tires, waving matches and cans of gasoline, and screaming threats to burn the legislators. Inside the chamber, the noise was deafening; and the vote did not take place. As they tried to escape the building, at least two deputies were surrounded by lavalassiens and beaten, one of them severely. A mob moved through the capital, sacking, among other places, the offices of a left-wing trade union whose leader had called for Aristide’s resignation and of a political mass organization that had been one of his key supporters in the election.

President Aristide would later try to make peace with the legislature, visiting the Palais with a bouquet of flowers in hand and persuading them to hold off on the no-confidence measure. But the example had been set. The congressmen had tried, through obstructionist, perhaps irresponsible but still quite legal means, to unseat the Péval government, and they had been prevented by the president’s mobs in the streets. It was, in retrospect, a critical break with the traditional politicians. It convinced many among the political class and among what the Aristide refers to as “the bourgeoisie”—who, he writes, had been given the opportunity by Lavalas “to opt for a democratic transition rather than for a violent revolution”—that President Aristide, when it came down to it, had no more respect for the constitution than any other Haitian ruler.

A critical mass had been attained. On the one hand, Aristide was showing signs of weakness. The president’s support in parliament, even among the deputies and senators supposedly committed to him, had reached a low point. He had been under increasing criticism even from some of the popular groups for his willingness to come to an agreement with the IMF—which they considered a foremost symbol of evil. The officers and many of the well-to-do had become increasingly worried by events like the rioting on August 13, and what they might portend. For their part, the officers were annoyed by the “temporary” status of Cédras’s appointment; concerned about the civilian security detail, which would put weapons in the hands of some of his supporters; and threatened by the president’s interventions to defend the troops after their rebellions. And perhaps their chance might pass: Aristide was speaking at the United Nations, soon he would visit President Bush in Washington, hundreds of millions of dollars of aid were on the way. If not now, when?

By mid-September, as the president prepared to leave for New York to address the United Nations, rumors of a coup were everywhere.

Even as President Aristide stood before the General Assembly, on September 25, 1991, officers of the unit known as the Cafeteria—which, under the command of an ambitious major named Michel François, had responsibility for the downtown business district—were addressing their troops, detailing the operation that was to unfold that weekend. Aristide’s people picked up the rumors and relayed them to New York. By the time he returned on Friday, the president had grown angry and defiant. He was hustled from his plane—according to some soldiers, the original plot entailed seizing the president, or even shooting him, as he emerged from the cabin—and into his jeep, and he and his entourage began the drive into the city. It turned out to be a painfully slow procession, for the people of the bidonvilles had been alerted, and by now the roadside was packed with tens of thousands of cheering Haitians. It was a demonstration of strength.

At the Palace, to another vast and wildly demonstrating crowd, he stepped forward to deliver what has become, sadly, his most famous single address. It is the speech of an aggrieved man, a leader who believed that he had behaved reasonably and prudently, and who now sees that his patience and restraint had gained him nothing: his enemies were plotting still to overthrow him. He begins his discourse with an appeal to the well-to-do, imploring them to “cooperate by using the money…to create work opportunities…so more people can get jobs.”

If you do not do so, I feel sorry for you. Really I do. [laughter from the crowd] It will not be my fault because this money you have is not really yours. You acquired it through criminal activity. You made it by plundering, by embezzling…. You made it under oppressive regimes…, under a corrupt system…. Today, seven months after 7 February, on a day ending in seven, I give one last chance. I ask you to take this chance, because you will not have two or three more chances, only one. Otherwise, it will not be good for you. [applause]…

While there exist patriotic bourgeoisie who earned their money “through honest work,” he tells the crowd, unfortunately, “they are few…not the majority.” He goes on to implore the deputies and senators to “work together with the people,” because, Aristide says, “we prefer to fail with the masses than succeed without them.” Then, after a plea to state employees to remember that “diverting state money is stealing, and thieves do not deserve to stay in public administration,” he proceeds to deliver what will become the most notorious words of his public career:

If I catch a thief, a robber, a swindler, or an embezzler, if I catch a fake lavalas…. If you catch someone who does not deserve to be where he is, do not fail to give him what he deserves. [crowd cheers] Do not fail to give him what he deserves! Do not fail to give him what he deserves!

Your tool is in your hands. Your instrument is in your hands. Your Constitution is in your hand. Do not fail to give him what he deserves. [loud cheers from the crowd]. That device is in your hands. Your trowel is in your hands….

Article 291 of the Constitution, which is symbolized by the center of my head where there is no more hair, provides that the Macoutes are excluded from the political game. Macoutes are excluded from the political game. Macoutes are excluded from the political game. Do not fail to give them what they deserve. You spent three sleepless nights in front of the National Penitentiary. If one escapes, do not fail to give him what he deserves [loud cheers crowd].23

You are watching all Macoute activities throughout the country. We are watching and praying. If we catch one, do not fail to give him what he deserves. What a nice tool! What a nice instrument! [loud cheers from crowd] What a nice device! [crowd cheers] It is a pretty one. It is elegant, attractive, splendorous, graceful, and dazzling. It smells good. Wherever you go, you feel like smelling it. [crowd cheers] It is provided for by the Constitution, which bans Macoutes from the political scene.24

These words would later form the heart of a campaign of defamation against Aristide—a campaign expertly designed and promoted by the Haitian military (and still pursued by Senator Helms and his allies in the CIA and in Congress). But when taken in context, the extreme rhetoric of this speech is not very mysterious: it was a call to arms, an effort to rally his followers and to intimidate his enemies—who even as he spoke, as he well knew, were plotting to overthrow him.25 It was an effort, that is, to hold power by brandishing what had always been his greatest strength and his most feared weapon—the Flood, the avalanche represented by the poor multitudes who were now cheering before him.

Which is to say that the speech was an act of politics, an effort to prevent, by threatening the violent use of the power he had, what has almost always been the consequence of political failure in Haiti: a coup d’état. That is why placing the speech at the center of a campaign against Aristide as a “violator of human rights” has always seemed a bit strange; if it comes to that, there is little doubt that no more Haitians died of abuses under Aristide than under the regime that preceded him, and certainly far fewer than under the one that supplanted him.26

But in the end human rights did not bring Aristide down, politics did. For if many of the charges made against him are demonstrably, factually wrong, they are not absurd; they are a quite vivid projection of the fears of those who had always held power in Haiti—a projection of what they were certain was coming. These expectations were by no means based solely on their distrust of Aristide, or on their misreading of his character. At least in part, they represented their recognition that, if the president were to achieve what he so fervently wanted to achieve—a “social revolution,” a “redistribution of wealth, freely discussed”—if he truly was intent on achieving these things, then they would feel bound to resist him, and violence would be inevitable.

By this measure, as it happened, the speech proved to be a failure. Aristide had launched an angry challenge to those who opposed him, and given a clear sign that he knew what the rules would be—rules allowing the use of naked power which he doubtless did not favor, but which he had clearly shown, on several occasions, he was prepared to accept. When the time came, and his antagonists played by those rules—with a much greater ruthlessness than he may have contemplated—he and his forces found themselves utterly unprepared, and they were routed.

When the rumors of a coup persisted, and the signs of trouble at various military bases became undeniable, Aristide telephoned General Cédras, who “supported me in my skepticism, and we laughed about it together.” He trusted Cédras, had “chosen to cultivate a good deal of confidence in our relationship.” Had the general not, after all, “often remarked on his attachment to the democratic process”?

Throughout its various incarnations during the past few decades, the Haitian army has shown one consistent trait: an overriding fear of division, a reluctance to set one soldier against another. An aggressive officer, if he has the right command, can often succeed in staging a coup that many officers don’t strongly support because they will refuse to act against him. Even now, General Cédras’s role in the coup is unclear. It is unlikely that it was as innocent as the Bush administration and the US embassy in Port-au-Prince would later claim; but it was always doubtful that even an “attachment to the democratic process,” however strong it was or wasn’t, would lead Cedras to move against his fellow officers, if they were determined to act.

Late Sunday night, shooting erupted throughout the capital. Soldiers fired on President Aristide’s house, where he had gone the day before.

The night was shattered by cries and by the incessant noise of automatic weapons. It was impossible for me to leave my house, which had been transformed into a bunker. It was equally impossible for me to send out an appeal that would be heard.

The officers had taken the obvious step: by shutting down the radio stations, they had cut off Aristide’s most potent weapon—his voice. Now squads of soldiers made their way into the bidonvilles, shooting anyone they saw, firing into the scrapwood hovels. When the people came out into the garishly lit streets, the soldiers shot them down. It was a simple tactic, with a long and honored history in Haitian politics. (The army last used it to devastating effect in 1957, before Duvalier was elected, to decimate the ranks of the populist who had been his most important rival.) The people, confused, frightened, and disorganized—they had received no mot d’ordre from their leader—stumbled into the streets and died. Automatic weapons, ruthlessly employed, had given the lie to Aristide’s “unarmed revolution.”

Around Aristide’s house, meanwhile, a great crowd had gathered. Dancing, singing, raising their machetes and their pikes high as the sun rose, they defied what they knew was coming. With automatic weapons clattering in the distance, they sang the songs they had made to honor him:

Titid! Titid!
The country is made for you!
Sit where you like, there you are

Many wanted to walk with the president to the Palace, to enfold him in their numbers and protect him as he retook the seat of power. Perhaps it might have worked: by now the diplomats were trying to intervene, urging Cédras—who denied he was in control of the “rebel” troops—to “protect the constitutional order.” Perhaps in broad daylight the soldiers would not have had the nerve to massacre thousands of people in the street.

But Aristide would have none of it. He accepted the French ambassador’s dramatic offer to escort him to the Palace. Twice, as they made their way through the deserted, corpse-strewn streets, soldiers ambushed their entourage, forcing the president and his personal security officers to stop and return fire. Finally, he reached the Palace and the company of the presidential guards, whom the president was convinced would protect him. They were, after all, the ti soldats, the little soldiers who, as he often said, might as well have formed part of Lavalas itself. But as he entered the Palace, the ti soldats began to stream out of it, toward the military head-quarters across the square. Finally, apart from a handful of loyal aides, Aristide was left alone in the great white building. Soon, the troops—among them, presidential guards who had fled moments before—came to take him. They handcuffed him, hustled him to the headquarters building where he was greeted by a smiling General Cédras, the protector of the elections that brought Aristide to power:

Cédras is pleased with himself. The officers drink to his health. There is the atmosphere of a macabre festival alongside the bloodied faces of my friends. I myself have my hands tied. They try to humiliate me. The military discuss my fate in loud tones. “We ought to kill him.” They almost get into an argument about who will have the pleasure of doing it.

Fortunately for Aristide, as it happened, “international reaction is worrying the more ‘political’ among them.” The American ambassador, the French and Venezuelan, were all intervening to save the president’s life.

And so, late that night, Jean-Bertrand Aristide sat in a deserted airport waiting amid a crowd of abusive, drunken soldiers for the Venezuelan plane that would carry him to exile.


Two years have passed since Aristide sat waiting in that airport in Port-au-Prince and he has spent them working tirelessly to engineer his return. From bases first in Caracas, now in Washington, he has traveled the world, attending conferences and meetings, delivering eloquent addresses to the United Nations and the OAS, meeting with presidents and prime ministers. At the heart of his complex diplomatic struggle lies a single fact. Four days after Aristide’s ouster, President Bush offered a clue to it when he remarked that, while he was “committed to the restoration of democracy,” he was “reluctant to use US forces to try to accomplish it.”

There’s a lesson out there for all presidents, and the lesson I’ve learned is that you’ve got to be very, very careful of using United States forces in this hemisphere.27

Standing beside the President, Father Aristide listened to the words that, as it turned out, have largely determined his exile. For if his restoration might not have required the return of American troops to Port-au-Prince, it would at least have required a willingness to risk such a return—a willingness to deliver a believable threat that might have changed the Haitian officers’ minds. And that, from the beginning, the United States has shown itself unwilling to do.

Haiti, as an American diplomat told me shortly after the coup, is “the original tar baby. No one wants to be forced to go in.” Had Ambassador Adams been able credibly to threaten the use of force, even as President Aristide was barricaded inside his house, the coup might never have succeeded, and Aristide might still be in Haiti. But, as one US government official put it, “Adams just didn’t have enough arrows in his quiver.” The Bush administration officials didn’t want to threaten to send in the marines unless they were really willing to do so, and they didn’t have to look too deeply within their souls to realize that—for Haiti, for Father Aristide—they simply were not willing.28

Their successors in the Clinton administration are not willing, either, which is why we have the Governors Island Accord and the fiasco that has followed from it. Among other things, the agreement makes no provision for enforcement, other than the re-imposition of sanctions. Now that sanctions have been re-imposed and a near-blockade has been imposed, administration and United Nations officials keep saying that sanctions “brought Cédras to the table last time”—without seeming to notice that last time, General Cédras and his officers came to Governors Island and essentially took Clinton administration and United Nations officials to the cleaners. They negotiated an accord that made no provision for justice: those responsible for the coup will simply retire (in the case of General Cédras) or be transferred to other posts. The Haitian army would not have to endure a “housecleaning”—such a provision, after all, might have required the United States to contribute something more than a contingent of unarmed, or lightly armed, “combat engineers and technical advisers.” In one way or another, under the current accord, Aristide would be expected to work with many of the same officers that had over-thrown him and murdered his followers. That is why President Aristide was reluctant to sign, and why he had torpedoed a similar agreement negotiated in Washington in February 1992, intensely annoying the Bush administration.

In the end, he had no choice. He signed, and then watched while the killings in Port-au-Prince inexorably increased as the date of his supposed return grew closer. He listened as officials from the United Nations and the US Embassy went on making their optimistic noises, even as his friends and followers were being murdered. And he watched as the American troopship sailed into Haitian waters—and then, faced with a handful of civilians with guns and loud voices, turned tail and sailed out again.

So Father Aristide waits in Washington. At the end of October, he went before the United Nations and demanded that the foreign countries apply a “total embargo” against Haiti—a tactic last applied to Haiti, unsuccessfully, by the French at the beginning of the nineteenth century. So far, the Americans, among others, have been unwilling to go along.

In Haiti, meantime, the people suffer; CARE, which feeds six hundred thousand Haitians every day—one in ten—has announced it may halt its food deliveries to the countryside because of lack of fuel. If this happens, many people will starve.

February 7 will mark the end of the third year of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s five-year term. He has spent thirty-one weeks in the Palace. In Haiti, his followers wait faithfully for him. But his enemies have proved to be tenacious, and it is hard to believe that they will ever allow him to rule Haiti again.

November 4, 1993

This is the third part of a three-part article.

  1. 22

    Radio Métropole, August 5, 1991, as recorded and translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. I have made a few slight changes in the translation.

  2. 23

    Crowds had gathered before the penitentiary in response to rumors that Roger Lafontant was about to escape.

    During the coup two days later, a soldier came to Lafontant’s cell and shot him. The soldier has since said he acted under orders from the prison commander, who in turn alleges that Aristide personally telephoned him on the night of the coup and ordered him to execute Lafontant. Aristide vehemently denies the charge, which is based on testimony elicited by the military government.

  3. 24

    Radio Nationale, September 27, 1991, as recorded and translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

  4. 25

    Unfortunately, President Aristide himself has considerably muddied the waters by insisting for more than two years that he was referring not to Père Lebrun but to the Constitution—an assertion that a full reading of the speech and a viewing of the videotape shows to be quite insupportable. Only recently has he begun to respond, when asked about the speech, that readers should “put the text in its context. The coup had started. I was using words to answer bullets.” See Joel Attinger and Michael Kramer’s interview, “It’s Not If I Go Back, but When,” Time, November 1, 1993, p. 28.

  5. 26

    See, for example, “The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record,” p. 6 and passim.

  6. 27

    See Norman Kempster, “Bush Against Sending GIs to Haiti,” The Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1991.

  7. 28

    The masterful propaganda offensive that the Haitian military launched during the weeks after the coup, together with the vehement anti-Aristide sentiment expressed by many politicians, including many deputies and senators, didn’t make the administration any more willing. And though to my knowledge there has never been any convincing evidence brought forward to support the conviction—widespread among Haitians, and particularly among Aristide’s supporters among the intellectual class—that the United States secretly supported the coup, certainly officials in various parts of the US government actively mistrusted and disliked him. The Los Angeles Times, for example, quotes a source who was “working in a senior position for the Senate Intelligence Committee” to the effect that “there were those in the CIA who were not pleased with [Aristide] in the past and don’t want him to be more successful now.” This particular source traces the Agency’s antipathy to the threat the CIA believes is posed by liberation theology: “Liberation theology proponents are not too popular at the agency,” he says. “Maybe second only to the Vatican for not liking liberation theology are the people at Langley.” See Jim Mann, “CIA’s Aid Plan Would Have Undercut Aristide in ‘87-‘88,” The Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1993, p. 1.

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