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Haiti: The Fall of the House of Aristide


From the air, Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic is easy to trace: it is where the dense forests on the Dominican side abruptly stop. West of the frontier, Haiti’s mountainous countryside is scoured by gullies and ravines; almost all of Haiti’s vestigial forest cover is gone, and in the hills of the drought-stricken northwest, smoldering charcoal pits, scattered across the desolate landscape, consume the few trees and shrubs remaining. Widespread erosion has exhausted land that was once fertile and productive; and apart from islands of semi-arable soil, only cactus and spiky acacia bushes grow in abundance.

By any measure—hunger, disease, infant mortality, access to water—Haiti is in a desperate condition. Much of the rural population lives in the grip of poverty of the most bleak and unremitting kind. In some regions the annual per capita income is less than $100. The sound of an auto engine laboring up the washed-out roads will send groups of naked children, many of them scarcely out of infancy, their hair red from malnutrition, scrambling up to stand on the roadside with hands outstretched.

Although no one really knows how many people live in Port-au-Prince today, the best estimate is about two million, two thirds of whom, over the last twenty years, emigrated from the rural districts and today crowd sprawling shantytowns like La Saline, the slum parish where Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide first came to prominence, or Cité Soleil, an insalubrious strip of landfill, blanketed by smog, that stretches for several miles along the sea. Mother Theresa is said to have described what she saw there as “fifth world.” Dark at night, except for the flickering here and there of a hurricane lamp or the occasional glow from a house that has tapped illegally into a power line, Cité Soleil’s narrow alleys and tin-roofed shacks, slapped together out of cinder blocks and cardboard, are home to more than 200,000 people who cook over charcoal and bathe and do their laundry in sewage-filled ditches.

It would be hard to overstate the gravity of Haiti’s longstanding humanitarian crisis or the intractability of the problems underlying it—the decline of the peasant system of agriculture, catastrophic environmental degradation, a population explosion—problems that in the past were scarcely recognized, much less addressed. For most of Haiti’s two-hundred-year history, its corrupt and authoritarian rulers regarded the Haitian government as an engine for the personal enrichment of the clique in control. “If the cost of maintaining power and continuing to enjoy the spoils of the state was the plunder of the nation,” the University of Chicago anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written, “they were quite willing to sacrifice the nation.”1 During the Night- mare Republic” of Dr. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s président à vie, government corruption and brutality reached their zenith. With the aid of the Tonton Macoutes, a sinister auxiliary of sunglasses-wearing thugs, who murdered and tortured his opponents and terrorized the population at large, Duvalier and his family ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986, when his inept son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) was forced to leave the country.

In the late Eighties, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s courageous opposition to the military junta that had taken power following Jean-Claude Duvalier’s departure led many to see in him a Caribbean counterpart of Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel. The slight, bespectacled young priest in his white supplice seemed, at first sight, an unlikely leader of popular struggle. But his homilies excoriating the regime and its backers among Haiti’s small, predominantly mulatto elite, delivered from the pulpit of St. Jean Bosco in a sarcastic, pithy, and idiomatic Kreyol, and broadcast over the Catho-lic Church’s Radio Soleil, galvanized popular resistance. Neither numerous government-sponsored assassination attempts nor the efforts of the Church hierarchy succeeded in silencing him, and his charismatic and uncompromising leadership hastened the junta’s fall.

In 1990, the priest was elected president, inaugurating what Robert Fatton Jr., a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, calls in his ambitious and illuminating new study, Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy, “the freest and most hopeful period of Haiti’s modern political history.” It ended a bare seven months later when Aristide was ousted by a military coup and driven into exile. The three years of military rule that followed saw the return of state-sponsored terror, as right-wing death squads targeted prominent Aristide supporters among the leadership of peasant groups, trade unions, and grassroots and neighborhood organizations, murdering an estimated three thousand to five thousand people. It was not until September 1994, when the landing of 23,000 US troops—part of Operation Uphold Democracy, a UN-sanctioned “armed intervention” that cost an estimated $2.3 billion—forced the military junta to step down, that the killing stopped.

For the hundreds of thousands who lined the streets of Port-au-Prince on October 15, 1994, the sight of an American fleet of Black Hawk helicopters returning Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his entourage to the lawn of the National Palace marked a decisive break with the Haitian past. The former priest was a messianic figure, the focus of near-millenarian expectations that his three-year exile in the US had, if anything, heightened. Haiti’s international supporters were scarcely less euphoric. Aristide resumed office with overwhelming and unprecedented foreign backing; in addition to the support of the Haitian diaspora, whose annual remittances, estimated at $800 million, helped to sustain what was left of the economy, the projected aid from foreign governments and international lenders earmarked for Haiti’s reconstruction amounted to over $3 billion. In the exhilaration of the moment, there were few problems that didn’t seem solvable.2

Eight years later, however, few if any of these hopes have been realized, and given the rapidly unraveling political situation today and increasingly vocal demands for Aristide’s ouster there are scant grounds for optimism.

The elite up on the hillside are by no means the only ones who no longer believe in Haiti’s future. Their cynicism is shared by virtually every segment of society, from the physicians dreaming of a safe and remunerative practice in Miami or Montreal to the Ti Marchanns, the market women who spread their blankets on the sidewalk and sell rice, millet, and beans by the cupful. According to a recent poll, fully 67 percent of the Haitian population would emigrate if it were possible.

Were Aristide, by the end of his term in 2006, to restore the economy to the levels under Jean-Claude Duvalier twenty years ago, it would seem almost miraculous. The adult literacy campaigns, rural clinics, public works, and land reform that for years Aristide had promised remain slogans rather than programs; under Aristide and his successor as president, his surrogate René Préval, between 1995 and 2000 were lost years, during which Haiti’s government was brought to a standstill and all plans for development were put on hold while a political struggle for control of the state played itself out in slow motion. Aristide’s opponents turned out to be neither the entrenched economic elite nor the die-hard elements of the old Duvalieriste party, as almost everyone in 1994 might have anticipated, but but the social democratic–constitutionalist wing of the Lavalas movement, the left-wing–populist coalition that first brought Aristide to power, which was mobilized into opposition by the Aristide government’s increasingly corrupt and authoritarian character. The Lavalas movement took its name from the periodic flash floods that come roaring down from Haiti’s mountains along dry river beds, sweeping away everything in their path.

By 1999, it seemed to many Haitians that Aristide, who once personified Haitian aspirations for democracy, now represented Haitian democracy’s biggest obstacle. The firebombing of radio stations by Aristide partisans, the murder of journalists like Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor, and the government’s unwillingness to bring the authors of these crimes to justice, all prompted Reporters sans Frontières, a Paris-based journalists’ advocacy group, to include Aristide on its list of Predators of Press Freedom. A corrupt police force in the service of the ruling party has fueled mounting human rights violations—“threats, illegal and arbitrary arrests, arbitrary detentions, summary executions, disappearances and police brutality are everyday events,” Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, charged on October 16 of last year—reinforcing Haiti’s traditional climate of impunity and lawlessness.

Human rights workers in particular have been targeted. In 1999, Esperance himself had his car forced off the road and was shot twice and left for dead. The independence of Haiti’s judiciary, its state university, and other institutions has been steadily undermined. Gross electoral fraud by the ruling party has deprived the entire political apparatus of legitimacy. For most of this time attacks by government-sponsored and armed militants on opposition rallies made free assembly all but impossible. “Violence, in all its forms, has reemerged as the common currency of both public and private life,” according to a report issued in December by the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project. “Haiti is an armed camp” and faces a “looming sociopolitical implosion.”3

The Aristide government’s increasingly authoritarian behavior has left it isolated and condemned by the international community, which has suspended crucial foreign aid to the point that today there is a total embargo apart from emergency humanitarian relief. The consequences for Haiti, already the poorest and most demoralized country in the hemisphere, at least a generation behind its most impoverished Caribbean neighbors, have been disastrous. The administrations of Aristide and René Préval have been marked by corruption and ineptitude and have choked Haiti’s economy and increased unemployment—estimates run as high as 80 percent—leaving the Haitian people mired in poverty, social unrest, and despair. It will almost certainly get worse. With the Aristide government recently rocked by demonstrations and strikes, and the prospect of increasingly violent clashes in the streets and countryside, it looks more and more as though Aristide’s time is running out.


These days, the older residential districts of Port-au-Prince have a distinctly down-at-the-heels look. The wooden gingerbread mansions in Bois Verna, their steep roofs, carved finials, and balconies occasionally visible through the canopy of trees, were once the most elegant in the Antilles, and during the US occupation in the Twenties provided the official residences for several of the American military and diplomatic proconsuls. Today most are in an advanced state of disrepair, prey to termites and the corrosive effects of the salt breezes. Bougainvillea and palm fronds spill in wanton profusion over the high walls, decorated with political graffiti, which surround the derelict gardens.

History has never left much of a physical imprint on Haiti. Apart from neighborhoods like Bois Verna, or the magnificently evocative ruins of Henri Christophe’s fortress and palace in the north, there are few visible reminders of “la splendeur haïtienne d’un après-midi d’histoire,” to which St. John Perse refers in one of his letters.4 In a great many other respects, however, Haiti remains in the grip of an archaic past, and its crippling social and economic legacy.

  1. 1

    Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State Against Nation, The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (Monthly Review Press, 1990).

  2. 2

    See Jean-Claude Bajeux, “An Embarrassing Presence,” Laënnec Hurbon, “The Hope for Democracy,” and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Aristide’s Challenge,” The New York Review, November 3, 1994.

  3. 3

    Haiti Democracy Project, The US Policy Imperative in Haiti and How to Achieve It, December 9, 2002, www.haitipolicy.org.

  4. 4

    Quoted in Gérard Barthélémy, Dans la splendeur d’un après-midi d’histoire (Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1996), title page.

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