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The Prophet

Aristide had spent the darkest years in school, and then, after 1966, in the Salesian seminary in Cap Haitien, in the north of the country. There he worked with the less fortunate—“Our [training],” he says, “gravitated around one axis: to encounter and serve the poor”—and studied languages. In learning other tongues, he discovered “nothing but an extension of my love for others,” but he also found himself exasperated with the Church-imposed necessities of Latin and “the way in which it was used to disrupt communication,” seeing in this a parallel to the “French histrionics” of Haitian politicians in a country where three Haitians in four understand only Creole. In an intimation of what was to come, the young seminarian wrote protesting the Latin requirement to the prefect of studies (who showed himself, not surprisingly, quite unmoved). No matter; Aristide had begun to question authority in earnest, and to rebel; his reading of the South American novelists of the “boom”—“the antagonism between exploiter and exploited” he found they articulated—and, later, of the writings of Leonardo Boff and other liberation theologists deepened his skepticism about the timidity preached by the established Church in Haiti.

The intellectual opening of Aristide’s early manhood, his exposure to the writings of Gabriel Marcel and of the liberation theologists, happened to coincide with a political opening in Haiti. In 1971, Papa Doc, having murdered tens of thousands, having exiled perhaps one Haitian in six and attained undisputed mastery over the country and its institutions, finally succumbed to heart failure. In what many took to be his final joke, he left the country in the hands of his son, a mountainously fat, glassy-eyed nineteen-year-old who cared only for girls and fast cars and knew nothing of politics.

With the ascension of Jean-Claude came, shortly, the return in force of the Americans. President Kennedy had broken relations with the regime for a brief time in 1963, had toyed with the idea of mounting a coup; Papa Doc had thrown out the technicians of the USAID program, closed down the military aid mission, largely cut the country off. But as the decade wore on, and the dictator consolidated his power, it became clear that the temporary chill had disguised a basic commonality: the Americans had a terror of Castro sending communism “leapfrogging” through the Caribbean; Duvalier (who, whatever manner of exotic beast he was, surely was no Communist) proved himself a sleight-of-hand genius at playing the “anti-Communist card.” By the latter half of the Sixties, aid was allowed to trickle in again through the multilateral institutions. The rapprochement between Washington and Port-au-Prince was publicly sealed in July 1969 when Nelson Rockefeller, President Nixon’s special envoy to Latin America, paid a visit to Haiti and appeared on the Palace balcony, his arm around the frail and white-haired Duvalier, grinning and waving vigorously at a cheering crowd.

Now, with the old man dead, the Americans returned in force, bringing with them a reinfusion of foreign aid, which the new regime, corrupt to a much more riotous degree than its predecessor, would seize upon, and shortly begin to crave, like the purest heroin.

During the Seventies, while Aristide was studying psychology and philosophy at the state university, the regime began, slowly and haltingly, to “normalize.” The Macoutes remained, but they killed less often; the spectacular operas of daytime terror in which Papa Doc had so delighted became infrequent. Coaxed by the regime, some exiles, mainly light-skinned businessmen—the old elites who had fled Papa Doc en masse—began to return.

As it grew increasingly dependent on foreign, and especially American, money, the regime became sensitive to its reputation abroad—particularly so after 1977, with the advent of the Carter administration and its human rights policy. Aristide notes that “the end of the 1970s coincided with a more and more active militancy in Haiti,” but he forbears to mention the ironic fact that this militancy (much of it vaguely anti-imperialist and anti-American) could scarcely have flourished without the persistent pressure exerted by the Carter administration—and, in particular, by Patricia Derian, the State Department official charged with human rights; and US ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, as well as other, less wellknown representatives of American hegemony. By taking their place as the major financial backers of Duvalier, the Americans had placed themselves in a position to encourage a grudging loosening of the regime’s grip on the civil life of the country. If they so chose, anyway; literally within days of Ronald Reagan’s election, Duvalier arrested most of the better-known militants and expelled them from the country.

Still, it was heady while it lasted. Young dramatists, writers, and, above all, radio commentators quickly gained nationwide popularity and began, cautiously but unmistakably, to criticize the regime. Aristide became director of programming for Radio Cacique, contributing “commentaries on the Bible, quotes from the Bible itself, imagery, stage pieces, short plays”—all of it aimed toward “dramatizing a reality in order to speed up the raising of social consciousness, X-raying Haitian society….” In a nation in which three citizens in four were illiterate, the new-found power of radio—heard on cheap transistor models all across the isolated countryside—was something of a revelation, and it was in learning to use it, under the eye of a nervous station director, that the young priest began to develop what would become his signal technique. The station director, Aristide writes,

made repeated and strong signals to encourage me to abbreviate or change the subject. I sometimes complied, but slyly. I would drop my commentary only to quote texts from the Bible that were even more impertinent and accusatory than the commentaries themselves. The gospel in its raw form could act like a stick of dynamite.

But the young priest’s superiors in the Church considered that dynamite to be their possession, and they did not appreciate his appropriating it.


By the late Seventies, Aristide writes, he had come to the conviction that “the majority of our church had decided, if not to compromise with power, at least to be silent, and even to preach resignation.” The rhetoric here strikes a familiar note:

There were some priests who were openly on the side of the Macoutes. There were also some bad priests who accepted everything and who happily joined in social sin and in collaboration. They pointed out the poor sinners, those who stole bananas or were unfaithful to their spouses, while closing their eyes to the overall structures of corruption. They inveighed against trifles and made a covenant with the devil.

Aristide has returned full-circle to the teachings of his grandfather; 6 but the student, more zealous by far than the teacher, is determined to follow those teachings to their logical conclusion—the moral imperative to “up-root” the “structures of corruption” in Haiti. This is how, years later, he described his “theological point of view” to me:

In what we call theology of liberation, we look at what is going on and we ask ourselves, What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say confronted with this situation: people are hungry, people have no job. Jesus would say, I don’t agree with this situation, I’m going to change it. And he would do something. All of us trying to do something for the poor are doing what Jesus did.

And now, if one bishop can tell us we are wrong—then who is wrong?7

For Aristide the fruit of the gospel was clear, as he believed it should have been to any priest who was not corrupted by fear or by ambition: social revolution.

Though it is hard to imagine a national Catholic hierarchy that could wholeheartedly embrace such a philosophy, the Haitian bishops were certain to be especially hostile, for not only had their Church been violently ravaged by Duvalier’s Macoutes, but the Concordat that the Vatican had finally granted Francçois Duvalier in 1966 ceded to the regime the power to approve promotions to a newly “Haitianized” Church hierarchy. Thanks to the Vatican, that is, the regime was not only the Church’s persecutor but its partner; and, this being the case, what is most striking about Aristide’s comments about the Church are not his charges of corruption and collaboration—the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, for example, he describes flatly as “a zealous servant of Macoutism”—which are (in broad outline at least) mostly true, but his evident bewilderment before the behavior of his Church superiors.

At the time, they must have been slowly becoming aware of the seeds of rebellion taking root in the lower ranks, watered by the “opening” of the late Seventies:

Inside, in spite of the power of the system, a small group of priests resisted the Pharisees who held the reins of command. It was a group whose numbers were steadily growing and whose audience was growing even faster. These were the priests who resisted the rigidity, the degradation, and the ultimate fossilization, and who were demanding an opening of the doors and windows….

We used to meet in the late 1970s, not entirely secretly, like children who hide out in order to commit little acts of mischief, but trying not to attract too much attention from the hierarchy. I had already been “burned” a few times. Perhaps it was hoped that I would leave the country to continue my theological studies somewhere else, in Israel for example. The archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Francçois-Wolff Ligondé, had no hesitation in exiling confrères whose sermons echoed the voices of the poor by sending them into the [countryside].

During the summer of 1979, the regional provincial of the Salesians, on a stop in Port-au-Prince, proposed to the young scholar—he had just graduated from the state university with a degree in psychology—that he travel to Jerusalem to learn Hebrew and master Biblical studies. The Salesians “sincerely loved me,” Aristide writes, and they “pictured me having a fine career, once the impetuosity of youth had dissipated.”

Except for what turned out to be that brief and abortive visit in 1982, Aristide would spend almost six years abroad. By the time he returned in January 1985, he had added Hebrew and Greek to his stock of languages and completed the course work for a doctorate in psychology. His planned thesis would take up “authoritarianism and neurosis in the Old Testament.”


On January 5, 1985, he stepped off the plane into “a country in a state of general mobilization for change.”

His Church superiors tried once more to rein Aristide in, and, in a pattern that would become well established, succeeded in doing the opposite. He had understood, from the Salesian provincial delegate, that he was to teach theology in the seminary in Port-au-Prince, but on arriving to take up the appointment he encountered a familiar tone of embarrassed hesitancy from his superior: “Fine…that is true, but…we were thinking of you as a professor of the Bible, but after all…we are obliged…you will have to go to Les Cayes”—a city several hours to the south. The Salesians had in mind something of an internal exile, a kind of quarantine to allow them to take the young man’s measure (“they were very fond of me,” Aristide says, “but at the same time, they did not trust me”). As it happened, however, the dechoukaj—or uprooting, as the rebellion against Duvalier was known—would commence in the provincial cities in the spring of 1985, and the authorities had perfectly placed Aristide to take part.

  1. 6

    See “Haiti on the Verge,” New York Review, November 4, 1993, p. 30.

  2. 7

    Interview with the author at St. Jean Bosco, Port-au-Prince, January 1987.

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