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Haiti on the Verge

  1. Implementation, following the agreements with the constitutional Government, of international cooperation:

a) technical and financial assistance for development;

b) assistance for the administrative and judicial reform;

c) assistance for modernizing the Armed Forces of Haiti and establishing a new Police Force with the presence of United Nations personnel in these fields.

As I write, the specific rules of engagement for the forces remain unclear, though the 590 Americans, according to Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, will be undertaking a “civil affairs mission,” which, he says, “is not a peacekeeping role.”7 Another, unnamed, official told the Times that the Americans will “have a narrow mandate to be there and rub off on the police and the army, who magically by osmosis are supposed to behave themselves; to conduct themselves more professionally.”8

One need not be intimately familiar with Haitian politics to recognize this as a dubious strategy. Although Clinton administration officials told the Times that the UN force “will be lightly armed and will have no mandate to stop Haitian soldiers and paramilitary elements from committing atrocities,” it is clear that, for the Governors Island Accord to have any chance of success, the soldiers and sailors and technical experts of the multilateral force must somehow accomplish two broad and very complicated tasks: they must help reduce the political violence that Haitian soldiers and their civilian associates are now inflicting on Aristide’s supporters; and they must somehow protect the men who have wielded power during the last two years—particularly the “ti soldats,” or “little soldiers”: the enlisted men—from the retribution of Aristide’s followers.

These two goals remain closely linked: the current repression is aimed both at intimidating Aristide’s better-known supporters and at dismantling his political network, mostly by murdering his most important followers in the slums; and it is precisely these followers, those who survive at any rate, who would be in a position to mobilize “the streets” for the president, and against the army and his other enemies, if he returns. Though his critics might say otherwise, President Aristide is by no means the first Haitian leader to make some use of street justice—violent popular retribution has been a traditional accompaniment of political change in Haiti—but for a number of reasons he has had an especially difficult time controlling it.

The central peculiarity of the Governors Island Accord is that it may well make political retribution more rather than less likely. For the ten points of the accord include no provision for the legitimate application of justice—on the contrary. Though officers of the Haitian Army violently overthrew the legally elected and internationally recognized leader of their country and then proceeded to murder a large number of his followers—estimates of the number killed range from five hundred to several thousand—the accord requires that Aristide grant an amnesty to those responsible. Only Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras, the commander in chief, will bear any official responsibility, and that almost ludicrously light: the general, according to point number eight, “has decided to avail himself of his right to early retirement….” (It is understood, though not formally inscribed, that the general will take a number of colleagues with him.)

These provisions are the heart of the accord; they made it possible and, at the same time, they constitute its fatal flaw. “This was the sine qua non of the thing,” a close colleague of Aristide’s told me by telephone from Port-au-Prince. “Without the amnesty there would have been no agreement.” It is likely that only the clear threat of international—which is to say, American—armed intervention in Haiti could have forced Haitian officers and their well-to-do backers to accept both Aristide’s return and punishment for staging the coup against him; but the Americans, for their part, showed themselves distinctly unwilling to undertake such an intervention; Aristide, after almost two years in exile, had to take what he could get. He was forced, in other words, to sign on to a Faustian bargain. In order to attain international support to return to the Palace, he essentially agreed to treat the coup d’état and the killing that followed it as if they had never happened.

Politically and personally, this had to be enormously painful for Aristide to do—it was precisely his reluctance to commit himself to such a deal that led to the collapse of the so-called “Washington Agreement” of February 1992, and he agreed to these terms now only under enormous pressure. (A “senior diplomat” at the United Nations described to one reporter how, when Aristide had hesitated to sign the accord without having more assurances that certain officers would be purged, the president of Haiti was presented with “a simple choice: ‘Sign the agreement or return to Washington and begin applying for a green card.”’)9

Put in these terms, the choice was quite clear: Aristide signed. But, as he must have known, he was putting his name to a deeply flawed document, one that lacks provisions for adequate enforcement, and much else. What is most painfully missing from the accord, making something of a mockery of its provisions for “assistance for…judicial reform,” is any idea of justice. And it is on the idea and the promise of justice that Father Aristide has built his life and his career.


It was during the early days of the dechoukaj—the “uprooting” that followed the fall of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986—that I first visited the Church of St. Jean Bosco, on the edge of the great slummetropolis of La Saline. The first burst of celebration and retribution had ended, but the images remained indelible: Haitians dancing in the streets, passing among themselves bottles of clairin, the cheap Haitian rum; invading the hastily abandoned homes of Duvalier’s associates and stripping the walls bare, ripping out even the electrical fixtures and the plumbing. Angry crowds of poor Haitians surrounding an unlucky Tonton Macoute—no longer the arrogant, all-powerful murderer he had been as one of Duvalier’s henchmen but now a frightened, pleading man in civilian clothes, having hurriedly discarded his blue denim uniform—and hacking him apart with machetes. Other Macoutes were stoned, or covered with gasoline and burned alive. Their remains were left lying in the sun to be further abused, or in some cases they were paraded through the streets like war trophies: a bloody severed head speared on the end of a pole; a shrunken, charred torso lashed to a wooden strut like a roasted pig.

I stood and marveled at the justice of the people,” Father Aristide told me as he sat in his church that March, startling me with the passion in his voice, the proud delectation with which he drew out the word “émerveillé.” He smiled patiently at my surprise, and at the inevitable question: How could he, a priest, call such acts “justice”? How could he countenance mobs burning men alive in the streets? “One must know when to look at the acts of the people and judge them as a psychologist, not as a priest,” he replied, and then, a bit more heatedly, “Our consciences should be clear”—this drew nods from several of the young people seated at the table with us—“These Macoutes were Satan,” he said intensely, leaning forward until his face was only a few inches from mine, “We saw Satan incarnate in certain of these Macoutes. It was the people who suffered, and the people themselves who decided to act; and in this they were doing God’s work.”

By then, everyone in Haiti was familiar with these simple and powerful equations—that political exploitation and repression equal Satan’s work; that the struggle for liberation and revolution equal the work of God. These were, after all, the bedrock teachings of the ti kominite legliz, the “little church communities” or “base communities” that had sprouted around the country to spread the teachings of liberation theology. The thirty-two-year-old Father Aristide had quickly become the ti legliz‘s most famous leader. Even while Duvalier still clung to power, Aristide had risen in his church to identify the dictator, personally, with Satan.10 In 1985, ten months before the dictator fled—when few would have dared to predict that such a thing could come about so soon, and with so little bloodshed—the tiny priest had stood in the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince and delivered an unforgettable sermon.

If one sought a model of liberation theology preaching, of the grafting of the teachings of the Bible to their implications for present-day social action, one could scarcely do better than “A Call to Holiness,” delivered during Holy Week, 1985. Beginning with the proposition that “Jesus is truth,” the young priest proceeds to tell the truth as he sees it, remarking on, among other things, the strange absence of Haitian saints in the Church of Rome; the iniquity of “the big capitalist bosses” who, every time they “pay out one dollar,…take in four”; the biblical admonition for periodic land reform (“The year of grace demands a redistribution of the land”). But nothing that comes before prepares one for the climax:

As a roaring lion, and a raging bear, so is a wicked ruler over the poor people” (Prov 28:15). Those are not my words. If those words make you feel angry, they’re right there in your Bible: rip out the page, but don’t try to beat me up, because those are not my words.

To become more holy, to do God’s will, Abraham accepted to sacrifice his only son.

And you too, whatever your life may be, whatever your work, whatever your prestige, the only honest and holy route is to be willing to sacrifice all to do the Lord’s bidding. And during this sacrifice you may receive many blows…. I expect to receive blows, too, and you must expect that also, even though it is not what we hope for; we must expect it.

St. Paul says: “Thrice was I beaten, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck….Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:25–28).

Thus must we expect to suffer to make our church holy, and to do the bidding of the Lord. To do the will of the Lord, you must learn to choose the Lord—or else you choose the devil.

To live a holy life you must make that choice. You cannot be holy and make compromises with Satan. You have to think the way the fellow in Psalm 1 thinks: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.”

When I was thinking about this psalm, I was praying, and I will tell you how I put the psalm to paper:

Hallelujah for men and women in Haiti who do not join forces with the malevolent regime. Hallelujah for the Haitians who do not enter into the gluttonous pillaging by a band of the bloodthirsty, in whose midst brother sells brother….Hallelujah, because the path of those Haitians who reject the regime is the path of righteousness and love, and this is what the Lord requires. Where there is beating, breaking, and destruction, the righteous man is not. The way of the Lord is the way of justice, and justice blooms on the banks of Deliverance.”


  1. 7

    The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, September 28, 1993.

  2. 8

    See “UN Force to Rely on Haitians to Keep Order,” The New York Times, October 1, 1993, A5.

  3. 9

    See Colum Lynch, “In Aristide’s hesitation, assurances won,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 1993.

  4. 10

    See “Va-t-en Satan,” in M.-L. Bonnardot and G. Danroc, La chute de la maison Duvalier: Textes pour l’histoire (Paris and Montreal: Karthala-CIDIHCA, 1989), pp. 77–78.

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