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.” 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 …

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