On a sunny Columbus Day afternoon, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, president of the Republic of Haiti, walked slowly down the steps of the Georgetown house in which he has made his home for much of the last two years, and faced a restless crowd of reporters and photographers. Even as he began to speak that October 12, the troopship USS Harlan County, which had arrived in the bay of Port-au-Prince the day before on a mission to land two hundred American “combat engineers and trainers” in Haiti, was beating an ignominious retreat. Onshore the “armed thugs” whose threats had prevented the troops’ landing were dancing and celebrating in the streets. Yet another agreement to return President Aristide to Haiti’s National Palace seemed near collapse.
In Washington, President Aristide spoke softly into the forest of microphones. “I am still confident that we are on the way to restore that democracy,” he told the reporters in his uncertain English.
What we have to do now is pushing to pressure in order to have some killers saying yes to the world, to democracy, because we have to save lives. We cannot let killers after two years deny what the world said…. If we don’t do that, what will happen to the US? Refugees we’ll still have.
It was a singular moment, the nationalist president standing in the imperialist capital and appealing openly, almost plaintively, for the help of the United States—a country he had habitually referred to in his sermons and his writings as “the cold country to our north.” He had written bitterly of Haitians who longed to reach American shores: his countrymen fled Haiti, he had said in an essay, “because the land of snow has exploited my beloved country to such an extent that there is too little left here—in what used to be called paradise—to give my people comfort.”
The men who turn them back are agents of that same cold country that refuses visas to those whose lives it has ruined: the United States, its Coast Guard. Coast Guard cutter…those words sound to us in Haiti today like a new description of Death with his sweeping scythe.
Now, from Washington, President Aristide found himself brandishing before the American public the specter of an exodus of refugees, making use of the boat people almost as a kind of lobbying tool, a potent image meant to persuade the citizens of the “cold country” that their government had better use its power to force his return to the National Palace—or they might well find waves of unwashed Haitians in flimsy sailboats turning up among the sunbathers on Florida’s beaches.
“What will happen to Haitians?” President Aristide asked, and then supplied his own answer: “Death.” Two days later, in front of Sacred Heart Church in downtown Port-au-Prince, gunmen wielding automatic weapons ambushed the car of Guy Malary, a prominent Haitian corporate lawyer who, scarcely a month before, had agreed to become justice …