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The Prophet

La révolution sans armes—the unarmed revolution, he would later call it, a wave of marches, demonstrations, confrontations, which then produced more demonstrations, more marches, more confrontations, the momentum of the entire process built and sustained in the schools and in church youth groups around the country and accelerated by angry voices from the pulpits. Radio—particularly the Church station, Radio Soleil—played a central part; after the regime finally closed the station, sermons were recorded and distributed on audio cassettes. Just before Easter 1985, Aristide contributed an extraordinary sermon at the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince—he was commuting from Les Cayes one day a week to teach in the seminary—in which he declared flatly that “the path of those Haitians who reject the regime is the path of righteousness and love, and that is what the Lord requires.”8 That he could make such a statement and survive without censure already suggested that the regime, so heavily armed and impregnable on the outside, had grown rotten and decadent within.

This was a key point, for when Aristide claims that the “national security forces were making arrests with all their might. They arrested anyone…The Macoutes had no hesitation in killing,…” he is fashioning legend, not writing history. People died during the dechoukaj, many people; but its triumph was made possible not only by the heroism of many Haitian “martyrs” but by the reluctance, or inability, of the younger Duvalier to take strong measures against the demonstrators. “If the people had risen up under Papa Doc,” as a US embassy spokesman of the time was fond of saying, “there’d be no dechoukaj, just piles of corpses in the streets.” The comment was self-serving—the official was arguing that American pressure had restrained the regime from doing what might have come naturally—but it was also true. Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime was greedy and incompetent, and it was dependent on the Americans, who did indeed exert pressure to keep the dictator from granting his security forces a free hand to act against the demonstrators.

At the end of January 1986, the Reagan administration gave Duvalier a final push by refusing to certify that his regime was “making progress” in protecting human rights, a move that effectively cut off American aid. Taking their cue partly from Washington, the top officers of the military—who were cowed and brutalized under Francçois Duvalier, but had won more autonomy under his son—distanced themselves from the Duvaliers, refusing, at the crucial moment, to defend the regime: as the officers knew well, they would be the beneficiaries of the dictator’s fall. And when he finally fled to France on February 7, 1986, the officers believed themselves deserving of their country’s gratitude.

These opposed views of the dechoukaj—a révolution sans armes or coup d’état—have shaped the discourse of Haitian politics ever since. Authority passed into the hands of a junta led by General Henri Namphy, the chief of staff, because, as another American official told me, “The army is the only nationwide institution in this country—apart from the Church, and the Church doesn’t want it.” To the Americans, as to the officers, the bishops, and most of the well-to-do in the grand houses in the hills above the capital, February 7 was a conclusion, an ending: the dictator and his embarrassing retinue had been forced out, a rotten ancien régime of three decades standing had collapsed, and now, after the country had endured an unfortunate few months of demonstrations and violence, it was time to put in place a process that would return the country to stability—a “transition to democracy,” as Secretary of State George Shultz put it—before things got out of hand.

For the “popular movement,” on its part, the students and the labor leaders and, perhaps most of all, the priests of the ti legliz—the “little church” of liberation theology—February 7 represented a beginning or, rather, a landmark along what they were convinced would be a long but ultimately fruitful path. La revolution n’est pas fini, as one, graffito scrawled on an aquamarine wall in Port-au-Prince had it: The revolution is not finished. The dictator was gone but the old order remained, and the Americans, the popular movement believed, represented that order’s main bulwark. For the Americans, writes Aristide, “it was a matter of bringing about the departure of the puppet dictator in order to avoid a social cyclone, of promoting a kind of Duvalierism with a human face, thus accelerating change in order to change as little as possible.” Duvalierism without Duvalier, in other words. For the popular movement, all effort must be directed toward its overthrow. The means to be employed were clear to everyone: demonstrations, marches, strikes—the unarmed revolution.

By late September, Aristide was in Port-au-Prince full-time, preaching at the Church of St. Jean Bosco on the edge of the enormous slum-city of La Saline. He’d been scarcely a year in the country, but already his thunderous sermons had gained him a nationwide reputation—in particular, a famous pronouncement on January 2, a month before Duvalier fled, in which he had identified the dictator as Satan and made to cast him out: “Va-t-en Satan!” By the end of that month, when a man came forward during mass and raised a revolver to the priest—before, unaccountably, lowering it, taking out the bullets, and presenting them to Aristide—by then, the legend of “the Prophet” had begun. Enthusiastic young people flocked about him, packed his sermons; the battered loudspeakers that carried his voice throughout the pale green nave of St. Jean Bosco were always obscured by a cluster of miniature cassette recorders. For although the poor from La Saline were well represented in the congregation, many of the young people were middle-class, and some even well-to-do, enthusiastic acolytes who were eager to take part in Haiti’s newest and fastest growth industry: political activism.

Aristide had become a leading figure in the midst of an explosion of political activity—an astonishing efflorescence of parties and civil groups and “mass organizations.” Unions, peasant groups, gatherings of doctors and lawyers and teachers, and political parties of every shape and description sprang up daily; dozens of self-proclaimed “candidates,” many of them returning exiles, declared they were entering the presidential race. The militants of the “popular movement,” Aristide among them, regarded “les leaders,” as they called the candidates, with withering disdain; the militants believed the transitional government was incapable of conducting a fair election, whatever the American diplomats promised—that the only path to attain justice and freedom lay in continuing to sustain a movement, as Aristide later put it, “that will permit the people’s power to come to a boil in a people’s revolution—so that this country can breathe free.”


Revolutions hunger for martyrs, and the Namphy junta, arrogant, bumbling, and brutal, proved happy to supply them. On April 26, 1986, Father Aristide and other popular leaders led thousands of people on a march to Fort Dimanche, the Duvalier regime’s notorious prison and torture chamber. It was the anniversary of one of Papa Doc’s most notorious massacres, and marching in the vast crowd were hundreds of Haitians who had seen their sons and daughters, husbands and wives disappear into Fort Dimanche and never emerge. The plan of the march—it was to begin with a mass of mourning at Sacred Heart Church and conclude at Fort Dimanche with a symbolical “funeral” for the thousands who had suffered and died there—demonstrated the popular movement’s creativity in making use of the past in order to dramatize the true roots of the “transitional regime.” More than any other place, as Father Aristide writes, Fort Dimanche “was a symbol of the Army and the police and the Tontons Macoute, of all the forces organized to destroy us.”

On this day, symbol became reality: policemen and soldiers guarding the fort fired into the crowd, killing at least seven people (several of whom were electrocuted when high-tension wires collapsed among the panicked, fleeing people). Father Aristide was broadcasting live from the scene to Radio Soleil and he offers a vivid description of the mayhem. “I saw people fall by the dozens,” he writes, “and then the men of Fort Dimanche who ran out to them, grabbed them by the feet and pulled them into the prison, like garbage…. It was clear that the plot had been hatched long before, and everything was going the way the evildoers of Fort Dimanche had planned it.”

He offers no proof of this; videotape of the march seems to confirm that provocateurs in the crowd were pushing the marchers inexorably forward, and working to provoke the soldiers who were nervously guarding the fort. The provocateurs were doubtless in the pay of what Aristide calls “the Macoute sector,” but no one has produced evidence, to my knowledge, that the soldiers, watching the enormous crowd advance upon them, had been ordered beforehand to create a massacre.

In any event, the killings at Fort Dimanche enormously strengthened the popular movement by offering the most vivid demonstration—in the first instance, through Father Aristide’s dramatic eyewitness broadcast—that the Namphy government was nothing more than “Duvalierism without Duvalier.” The march itself marked an important departure in the struggle to force the people to raise their own voices, to force, in Aristide’s terms, “the subjects [to] become active and self-expressive.”

Two weeks after the massacre at Fort Dimanche, Aristide received a letter from his Salesian superiors ordering him “not to take part in politics in the future.” At this, Aristide explodes: “As if Archbishop Ligondé was not involved in politics!”

The politics of the corrupt right wing did not excite the least stirrings of conscience, but the politics of the excluded, the voice of the voiceless, when it was heard and repeated, was no longer tolerable.

Two days after the fall of Duvalier the bishops had proclaimed (in Aristide’s paraphrase) “the hour of reconciliation. From now on, the danger we have to watch out for is communism!” Certainly, the bishops feared revolution; their greater fear, more likely—apart from possible retribution from the regime—was that they would entirely lose control over their lower ranks to a rising “people’s church” that disdained their authority. Father Aristide, working to create that church, could summon little respect for the bishops’ position. “The structures of the church,” he writes,

were a perfect reflection of ancient society, the heritage of the fourth century and of the self-seeking and mercantile interests associated with Emperor Constantine. Our church today has accumulated far too much material wealth. The priest has already eaten when he gets up to address an audience that, for its part, does not know when it may eat again. I reflected on this contradiction later in a poem:

What a blessing for the Haitian church,
Rich, thanks to the poor,
In a country that is poor because of the rich.

Father Aristide had arrived at a picture of the world that included

  1. 8

    See “Haiti on the Verge,” The New York Review, November 4, 1993, p. 28.

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