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The Prophet

Aristide: An Autobiography

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

1.

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.1

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.”2 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 minister in a new, and now virtually powerless, Aristide-appointed government. Having overtaken the car, the gunmen sprayed it with automatic fire, pouring scores of bullets into the bodies of Malary, his driver, and his bodyguards; whereupon the killers (evidently in no hurry, though it was broad daylight and they were on a main thoroughfare) proceeded to pull the corpses from their seats, drag them over to the sidewalk, and arrange them in a bloody tableau.

By the next afternoon, October 15, President Clinton—citing the need to “ensure the safety of the Americans in Haiti and to press for the restoration of democracy there through the strongest possible enforcement of the sanctions” which had been reimposed on Haiti by the United Nations—ordered six American warships into Haitian waters and dispatched a company of Marines to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Foreign warships, US Marines, angry threats of “international isolation” emanating from Western capitals: all the warning sirens of foreign intervention, echoing down two centuries of a turbulent, violent history, were sounding from Washington and New York, and the self-proclaimed nationalists who held power in Port-au-Prince responded with alacrity.

We have reached the point,” complained Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras, the military commander in chief and de facto ruler of the country, “where it seems anything can be done in this country without regard to the laws of this country.” Less legalistic was Colonel Joseph Michel François—the police chief who is widely believed to have directed the paramilitary elements that had killed Guy Malary and many others before him—who boldly echoed King Henry Christophe and the entire pantheon of Haitian would-be martyrs by vowing his determination to “stay and die in my country.” On a local radio broadcast, a spokesman for the so-called Resistance Committee to Defend National Sovereignty, a newly formed pro-military group, declared that “in order to avoid social upheaval, we must throw out the white foreigners. They are dangerous for us.”3

As the US warships took up their positions off the Haitian coast, President Aristide sat for a television interview in Washington. “I grasp this opportunity,” he told American television viewers, “to thank President Clinton, to thank the UN, because they are putting pressure through the blockade. That’s the way we can restore peace to Haiti.”4

Amid the rising cacophony, the only voices unheard were those of “the people”—pèp la—as Aristide refers to the poor Haitians of the bidonvilles, the vast “tin-can cities” that surround the capital and house the great majority of its inhabitants. “The people” had marched for him in the streets; had shielded him with their bodies to protect him from the bullets of his enemies; and, when the chance came, had made use of the only strength they possessed—their numbers—to sweep him into the Palace by the overwhelming margin of their votes.

In the enormous slums, far from the diplomats and politicians, gunfire clatered every night; each sunrise revealed corpses on the garbage-pocked dirt paths. But the words of the people of the bidonvilles were not heard on American television; Aristide, two years in exile, remained their only voice. In the bidonvilles, they had long since named him “The Prophet.”

2.

Eleven years before, a frail twenty-nine-years-old intellectual, only two months a priest, stood before his first congregation in his first church and quoted the Scripture. He chose the passage with what his flock would come to recognize as a characteristic sense of purpose:

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are left desolate.

Open your mouth, judge righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31: 8–9)

From these Biblical verses he sought to fashion a kind of protective shield around himself, attempting to persuade the Duvalier regime, and his superiors in the Church, that, despite what they might think, he was not delving into “political action.” It was the Scriptures that demanded he give voice to the feelings of the poor gathered before him, that he serve as their tribune. He had no choice but to follow what was written, to speak for the mute.

The other day,” he told the congregants of St. Joseph,

I was at Croix-des-Bossales…and it was raining. Under the rain, in a filthy, foul mud, the cart haulers, wet from the water of the heavens, soaking in muddy sweat, continued without respite…their black-slave labor. Cart haulers, tragic Sisyphean figures, condemned…to carry eternally in their arms the weight of the sufferings of a world of oppression!5

It was a potent image, this portrait of a cart hauler, for his poor congregants would know that, more than likely, this mud-caked, sweating man carried on his cart the great bags of charcoal that fueled the slums: the charcoal drawn from the parched countryside, where the peasants tore from the earth every last plant and stick of wood, accelerating the erosion that in turn would drive them from the land into the teeming slums of the cities; the charcoal that the peasants—who had now taken their places in the slums, subsisting in sheet-metal and scrapwood hovels—bought by the handful to fuel the fires to cook their food, covering the capital’s bidonvilles in a permanent canopy of greasy brown smoke.

Such things are not spoken of in Haiti—at least not by the lettered, and never in such indelicate detail. Aristide, by the power and specificity of his language, offered a clinical picture of how most Haitians actually lived, and he did so, during his short career as a priest, with remarkable constancy and a fidelity borne—as his listeners knew—of his own travels in what he calls “the country of sub-humanity, of oppression turned to misery.” In “the old days, before it became impossible,” he would write a half dozen years later,

I used to walk through La Saline and the other slums like it that are spreading like contagion in a city that for years has been clogged with the detritus of the deadly economic infection called capitalism. In La Saline, there are many dark byways, paths that run between two rows of shanties made of plywood and cardboard and old, disintegrating tin. One bright hot day I walked down one of these corridors, a dark byway even in the hot Haitian sun, and at the end I found a courtyard with three naked children, my country’s new generation, bathing in a puddle of garbage left from the rains of the night before…. On another day, I walked down another corridor and three young girls—wearing secondhand dresses thrown away by nice middle-class girls in a northern country and brought here by profiteering middlemen—these young girls were selling themselves for quarters and dimes and less to any man, and that was the new generation of my beloved country.

Haiti’s leaders were not ready to have their country’s blemishes held up to public gaze in this way—not in 1982, anyway; nor did they feel obliged to wait for an answer to the question the young priest had the audacity to pose to his parishioners at the end of his vivid description: “Can we continue to find normal this situation of violence imposed on the poor?” Roger Lafontant, then Jean-Claude Duvalier’s minister of the interior and the most feared man in the country, had a word with the provincial delegate of Aristide’s Salesian order. After barely two months in his first church, only three months after he had returned to Haiti from three years of study and archaeological work in Israel, Greece, and Egypt, Aristide was abruptly dispatched to Montreal, to “a pastoral institute that specialized in theological reprogramming,” as he describes it. He bore a sealed letter informing the superior that the young priest was in need of “pastoral reorientation.” He would remain in Canada two and a half years.

Twenty years before, during the dark years of Françcois Duvalier, the regime might have expelled him outright, or, depending on Papa Doc’s mood, sent Tonton Macoutes to invade his church during mass and beat his parishioners; they might even have murdered him. But these were different times: by 1982, the upper reaches of the Church were firmly under the regime’s control, thanks to a Concordat Papa Doc had concluded with the Vatican. His son’s government was concerned about its image, and preferred to exert its control in subtler ways.

  1. 1

    MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, October 12, 1993.

  2. 2

    See my “Haiti on the Verge,” part one of the present review, The New York Review, November 4, 1993, pp. 25–30.

  3. 3

    Cédras made his comment to the Cable News Network, October 16, 1993. Colonel François and Robert Abellard of the Resistance Committee to Defend National Sovereignty were quoted in the New York Times, October 16, 1993. In his radio comments, which the Times quoted from Reuters, Abellard apparently used the Creole word blan, “foreigner,” which does not refer specifically to whites. Haitians will refer to American blacks as blans, for example.

  4. 4

    See Both Sides with Jesse Jackson, CNN, October 16, 1993.

  5. 5

    Quoted in Franklin Midy, “L’affaire Aristide en perspective: Histoire de la formation et du rejet d’une évocation prophétique,” Chemins Critiques, Vol. 1, Number 1, March 1989 (Port-au-Prince and Montreal: Editions du CIDIHCA), p. 47.

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