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Haiti on the Verge

Tout Homme Est Un Homme: Tout Moun Se Moun

by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with Christophe Wargny
Editions du Seuil, 222 pp., FF 89 (paper)

Aristide: An Autobiography

by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with Christophe Wargny, translated by Linda M. Maloney
Orbis Books, 205 pp., $14.95

Théologie et politique

by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, preface by Leonardo Boff
Les Editions du CIDIHCA, 143 pp., $19.95 CAN (paper)


On a sweltering morning in Port-au-Prince, in July of 1915, a party of gentlemen attired in black morning coats, striped pants, and bowler hats strolled past the wrought-iron gates and around the courtyard of the elegant mansion that housed the French legation and pushed through a side door. When the French minister stepped forward to meet the gentlemen—whom he recognized as the crème de la crème of Haitian society most of them light-skinned, and educated, like their fathers before them, in the finest schools of Paris—they ignored him, shouldered their way roughly past, and began searching through the sumptuous parlors and then through the back rooms, until at last they uncovered, cowering in a tiny bathroom, one General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, president of the Republic of Haiti. After managing, with some difficulty, to break the president’s terrified hold on the rack of chamber pots, the gentlemen dragged his prone body out of the building, through the cobblestoned courtyard, and heaved it over the spiked-iron fence to the screaming mob beyond.

There was one terrific howl of fury,” a young American diplomat reported,

I could see that something or somebody was on the ground in the center of the crowd, just before the gates, and when a man disentangled himself from the crowd and rushed howling by me, with a severed hand from which the blood was dripping, the thumb of which he had stuck in his mouth, I knew that the assassination of the President was accomplished. Behind him came other men with the feet, the other hand, the head, and other parts of the body displayed on poles, each one followed by a mob of screaming men and women.

The diplomat hurried back to the American legation and there composed a brief cable for the secretary of state in Washington: “MOB INVADED FRENCH LEGATION, TOOK OUT PRESIDENT, KILLED AND DISMEMBERED HIM.”1 That afternoon, on President Wilson’s order, the Navy Department radioed a message to Rear Admiral William B. Caperton, commanding the armored cruiser USS Washington, which was on patrol just off the Haitian coast: “STATE DEPARTMENT DESIRES AMERICAN FORCES BE LANDED PORT-AU-PRINCE AND AMERICAN AND FOREIGN INTERESTS BE PROTECTED.” Shortly before six o’clock, 330 khaki-clad US Marines came ashore north of Port-au-Prince and marched upon the capital. They had come to restore order, to protect American interests, and to “professionalize” the Haitian Army. They would remain nearly twenty years.

Six decades have passed since the Marines departed Haiti, leaving behind a few well-paved roads, a handful of new agricultural and vocational schools, and an American-trained, “nonpolitical” army. As I write, in early October, another several hundred American troops are preparing to disembark in Port-au-Prince. Their stated mission, once again, is to “retrain” and “professionalize” the Haitian army and thereby “get it out of politics.” Their larger task, however, and that of the hundreds of other foreign troops and police accompanying them, is to make possible the return to the vast white presidential palace of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a tiny, bespectacled man who, even in Haiti’s long and colorful history of delirious emperors, mad kings, and paranoid dictators, stands out as an extraordinary political phenomenon.

Before the Haitian military overthrew him and expelled him from the country, on September 30, 1991, Father Aristide had spent scarcely thirty-one weeks in the Palace—a brief span though by no means the briefest in Haitian history. (The unfortunate President Sam, for one, was in office for barely five months, and he was only the last and least lucky of a series of eight men who had occupied the Palace during the seven riotous years before the American invasion.) Aristide’s administration was the sixth, or arguably the seventh (depending on how you count), to hold the Palace since Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country, on February 7, 1986, and thereby opened the current parenthèse—the “parenthesis” of disorder and political struggle that has traditionally separated the fall of one Haitian ruler and the rise of the next.

What distinguishes Aristide from the rest, however, is neither the brevity of his tenure nor the abruptness of his departure but the fact that his exile is scheduled to come to an end. The senior officers of the Haitian army, under an accord signed July 3 in New York, have agreed that the president they deposed should return to Haiti and reoccupy the Palace. This is something new in the history of Haiti, which has, since winning its glorious independence in 1804, seen forty-odd men and one woman attain the Palace and then leave it in various ways—one by execution, one by suicide, two by assassination, one by fiery explosion (consuming the Palace and the president along with it), five by more or less natural death, and twenty-odd by various sorts of violent overthrow. In those 189 years, in which a score or so deposed presidents have lived out their forced and generally opulent retirements in Paris and Kingston and New York, no ruler has ever returned from exile to retake power. And yet according to the so-called Accord de Governors Island—named for the spot of land in New York Harbor where it was negotiated and signed—President Aristide is to return to the white palace in Port-au-Prince on October 30.

As I write, there is a new prime minister in Haiti, chosen by Aristide and inducted into office at the end of August in Washington, and a “new campaign of terror,” orchestrated by elements in the police and army.2 The prime minister, Robert Malval, is a light-skinned businessman from an old elite family, whom the president chose both for his political charm and for his lifelong connections among the country’s powerful. The campaign of terror, carried on largely—but by no means exclusively—in the vast slums that engulf the capital like tumors that have overwhelmed their host, constitutes a more extreme phase of the efficient political repression that began with the coup d’état two years ago. Diplomats and human rights observers in Haiti agree that it is “the worst wave of politically related violence…since the early days” after the coup.3

Even on the very day late in June when Aristide and his associates and Cédras and his officers began working out their accord in New York, in Port-au-Prince heavily armed police were invading a church during mass and beating up parishioners who had shouted the deposed president’s name—a scene broadcast live on the state television network. Scarcely a week after the accord was signed in July police and armed civilians violently broke up peaceful, pro-Aristide demonstrations in Port-au-Prince. On August 17, prominent supporters of Aristide who were attempting to hang posters of the president in an effort to test the regime’s sincerity were beaten in broad daylight by uniformed police. From Washington, President Aristide protested:

The bread that the people of Haiti need most is the bread of peace, the bread of security. If citizens want to hold a photo of the president in their hands, they should be able to do so without being beaten. If citizens want to speak to journalists, they should be able to do so. If people want to walk the streets day or night without being victims of terrorism, that must become a reality also.4

Fifteen days after he uttered these words, Aristide had his answer. On the morning of September 11, during a service commemorating the fifth anniversary of a horrific massacre in Aristide’s church, armed men wearing civilian clothes and carrying walkietalkies entered the Church of the Sacred Heart in downtown Port-au-Prince and demanded that Antoine Izmery, a prominent Haitian businessman and longtime Aristide supporter, accompany them. The men led him out to the street where, before the eyes of a number of passers-by—and perhaps fifty yards away from a truckload of police who had been patrolling around the church—the men forced Izmery to kneel on the pavement and put his hands behind his neck, whereupon one of the men placed a gun to his left ear and executed him.

Three days earlier five people were killed when Evans Paul, who had been elected mayor of the capital at the same time Aristide became president, attempted to re-occupy his office. During the first three weeks of September alone, at least fifty people are thought to have been assassinated in the capital, an uncertain number of them having disappeared at night, only to reappear in the early morning as corpses, left like offerings on the filthy streets of Port-au-Prince. Arson, murder, mysterious bursts of gunfire during the night—all the tactics of street terror by which the Haitian political conversation is lent emphasis and tone in times of stress—are clearly on the rise. On September 21, the “civil mission,” established by the United Nations and the Organization of American States to monitor human rights violations in Haiti, spoke of “armed groups…preparing to commit violent acts,” the drawing up of “death lists,” and an “alarming” number of “arbitrary executions, suspicious deaths, kidnappings and forced disappearances.”5 On October 5, thirty armed civilians firing automatic weapons attacked a meeting in a Port-au-Prince hotel, firing upon, among others, a United Nations Security officer, and narrowly missing Mayor Paul, who had escaped moments before.

The situation can be changed,” Aristide had said in late August. “The situation has to change”—implying, it appears, that if “l’insécurité,” as Haitians call it, persisted, he might decline to return. To the authors of the violence, of course, this is scarcely a threat; preventing the president’s return is precisely their object. Aristide’s warning is instead directed at the United Nations, under whose auspices the pact was concluded. For his part, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general, has vowed that severe economic sanctions, which were imposed in June and lifted after Malval took office, will “automatically” be reimposed if “numerous violations of…human rights and fundamental freedoms” are uncovered in Haiti.6 These conditions would appear to have been fully satisfied; and yet the installation of Robert Malval means that in reimposing sanctions the United Nations would be placing itself in the somewhat absurd position of punishing Aristide’s own government.

Malval, however, appears to have secured at most very limited authority over the governmental apparatus—as of this writing, many of his ministers have not even managed to occupy their offices—and even less over the fractious and rebarbative Haitian military. From Washington, Aristide raged that Cédras and Colonel Michel François (the Port-au-Prince police chief who is generally thought to control the paramilitary forces doing most of the killing) were “assassins” and demanded their “immediate” removal—while stopping short, however, of calling for the reimposition of sanctions.

Clearly, the crux of the matter will be “the international force,” or “technical mission,” or “mission in Haiti,” or any of the other euphemisms by which the UN’s multilateral military force is known. That President Aristide, whose past rhetoric has been defiantly nationalistic and—on occasion—vividly anti-American, may return to Haiti thanks in large part to the assistance of American troops is a very ticklish matter. The provisions involving foreign forces have been vociferously protested by political parties of both the left and the right. For this reason, the language of the Governors Island Accord on this point—number five of a ten-point document—is especially vague:

  1. 1

    The writer is Beale Davis, then chargé d’affaires at the American legation, and the quotations from his reporting are drawn from Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., and Nancy Gordon Heinl, Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492–1971 (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 400–401.

  2. 2

    See Howard W. French, “New Campaign of Terror in Haiti is Linked to Police and Army,” The New York Times, September 5, 1993, p. 5.

  3. 3

    French, “New Campaign of Terror,” p. 5.

  4. 4

    Don Bohning, “Regime breaks up pro-Aristide rally as Parliament acts,” The Miami Herald, August 18, and Don Howell, “Aristide Is Wary: Scant joy as embargo lifted,” Newsday, August 29, 1993, p. 15.

  5. 5

    See Haïti-Hébdo, a Paris-based newsletter, No. 36, September 26, 1993.

  6. 6

    Howell, “Aristide Is Wary,” p. 15.

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