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Haiti: The Fall of the House of Aristide

His initial time in office in 1991, much of which he spent at loggerheads with the legislature, produced an abiding mistrust of government, which he saw as a vehicle for the bourgeoisie—those of it not allied with him—to reassert their traditional hegemony. Moreover, he displayed a notable lack of enthusiasm for representative democracy, acknowledging in his 1993 autobiography that as far as he was concerned it was not an “indispensable corollary” of the movement for human rights.8 In theory at least, the democracy Aristide sought to promote was one whose emphasis was participatory, a popular dialogue in which the hitherto marginalized mass of the Haitian people would for the first time be involved. However, while much of his time is spent in audiences with peasants, workers, and members of labor unions or women’s groups, he has little good to say about the representatives, elected or otherwise, who purport to speak for these people and whose legitimacy he regularly questions.

It was hardly surprising, then, that in breaking with OPL to found his own party, Aristide, as the former ambassador to El Salvador Robert White wrote at the time,

reverted to the ecclesiastical authoritarianism he once condemned. Confronted with a Lavalas movement escaping his personal control, he did not seek to build new coalitions within the party. Instead he excommunicated his longtime friends…and created a new church, without doctrine or dogma except unquestioning loyalty to its leader.

This represented a breach with most of his comrades in the Ti Légliz (“Little Church”), as the liberation theology movement was known, as well as with human rights activists and leaders like Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, head of MPP (Mouvement des Paysans de Papaye), Haiti’s largest peasant organization. Aristide was now opposed by veterans of the anti-Duvalier struggle and almost all of the left, persons who had stood with him in the Eighties and fought for his return from exile. Among the disaffected former supporters are virtually all of Haiti’s leading intellectuals and artists, the persons who had best articulated the humane values that should be at the basis of any new Haitian society. Fanmi Lavalas possesses no strong leader other than Aristide, who is both its leader and raison d’être; without him, his peculiar coalition would collapse overnight.

Fanmi Lavalas, Jacky Dahomay has written, was based on Aristide’s alliance “with the only forces left to deal with: the traditional bourgeoisie and the new bourgeoisie born out of all sorts of illicit traffics and their gangs of chimeras” (thugs).9 The new FL barons included persons from the southwestern part of the island, known to Aristide since childhood or connected to his family, who today staff the National Palace. They are drawn as well from the traditional mulatto upper bourgeoisie to which Aristide’s wife Mildred belongs, most of whom supported and some of whom financed the 1991 coup. They also include a small remnant of the Ti Légliz and ambitious military officers like Dany Toussaint, Fourel Celestin, and Joseph Medard, who joined Aristide in exile following the 1991 coup, and are now powerful members of the Haitian Senate, as well as the center of much of the speculation about drug trafficking and “extra-judicial killing.”

Unlike the original Lavalas movement, the new Fanmi Lavalas party, Fatton observes, ruled from the top down. “Bypassing forms of collective accountability and decisionmaking” that characterized its predecessor, the ultimate authority remained in the hands of its chief. The impact of this has been profoundly destructive. Haiti’s strongest indigenous force for democracy, its many grassroots organizations of peasants and urban poor, which for years, as Beatrice Poligny has written, have been “inventing means of survival that defy all conceivable clichés about Haitian misery,” have to a large extent been repressed, co-opted, or pushed to the side.10

A Kreyol proverb Konstitusyon se papye, bayonht se feh—“Constitutions are paper, but bayonets are steel”—succinctly expresses the traditional attitude of Haiti’s rulers toward the law. FL proved to be no different. In January 1999 Préval resolved his power struggle with OPL by shutting down the opposition-controlled Parliament, a step the OPL charged was “a coup against our democratic institutions,” and for the remainder of his term, together with a de facto government formed with his FL colleagues, ruled by decree.

In the face of rising international protest, Préval agreed to call new parliamentary elections. For most of the Lavalas years, I was a fairly regular visitor to Port-au-Prince, and the resurgence of political violence, particularly in the months leading up to the May 2000 balloting, was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Haiti’s changed political climate. As the campaign intensified, the police withdrew to the sidelines as gangs of “militants” from La Saline and Cité Soleil, voicing allegiance to Aristide, regularly broke up opposition rallies and firebombed the homes and offices of opposition politicians, human rights activists, and journalists. The former Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul, who had been beaten and tortured by the military in the early Nineties, warned that the Haitian people were “in the hands of politically manipulated thugs. Anarchy is overwhelming us.”

The political use of paid thugs is a familiar-enough phenomenon in other parts of the Caribbean, and elsewhere. In Haiti, as the former FL activist Edzer Pierre notes, “There’s a huge population of people who will do anything for money.” In Haiti, the Chimères, as these groups came to be known, are “not a political force, they’re a political tool,” and under Aristide they were transformed into a semi-official arm of the government. The identity of those in charge of these operations was never a particular secret. Roland Camille, aka Ronald Cadavre, perhaps the most feared of Lavalas organization populaire chiefs, is a gangster from La Saline, where he has run a protection racket in the local market. In 2001, to the dismay of a group of senators who were involuntary witnesses, Cadavre, whose relations with Aristide put him beyond the reach of the police, took advantage of this peculiar immunity to shoot a rival to death on the steps of the Palais Legislatif. For most of this time, it was clear enough that these episodes could have been ended by a single (cellular) phone call from Aristide’s private residence in Tabarre, and equally clear, given Aristide’s conspicuous failure to denounce these acts, that such a call would not be forthcoming. The unwillingness of the government to curb violent acts by its partisans was sharply criticized by human rights groups like Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, once Aristide’s strongest supporters.

For international observers who had seen in recent events the lengthening shadows of Haiti’s traditional authoritarianism, the May 2000 parliamentary elections represented a crucial test of the FL’s commitment to democratic norms. Because of the multiplicity of small political parties that is a traditional feature of Haitian politics, the Haitian constitution and the electoral laws enacted in 1998 direct that when no candidate achieves a simple majority—50 percent plus one—the top two candidates must face each other in a runoff. While most people predicted a sweeping victory for Aristide’s party, the results still came as a surprise, with Fanmi Lavalas candidates capturing eighteen out of nineteen Senate races, seventy-two out of eighty-two contests for the Chamber of Deputies, and the vast majority of municipal offices.

The US and other countries hailed the outcome and indicated that they would move quickly to normalize relations. However, the street sweepers had barely finished removing the smashed ballot boxes and shoveling up the tens of thousands of paper votes that covered the Rue Pavée in downtown Port-au-Prince before OAS analysts were reporting that in fourteen out of nineteen Senate races, the FL candidates owed their victories to a fraudulent manipulation of the returns by the FL-controlled Provisional Election Commission (CEP). Although in each instance the FL candidate had failed to achieve the required majority, the CEP, fearing the possibility that the defeated opposition parties would unite behind a single candidate, ignored the constitutionally mandated requirement for a runoff, and awarded the contest to FL candidates outright. The CEP was able to transform the plurality that each FL candidate had obtained into the requisite majority by discarding all of the opposition ballots apart from those received by the principal opposition runner-up, approximately one third of the total votes cast, or 1,200,000 nationwide.

The CEP’s action brought that much closer Haiti’s transformation into a one-party state. The revelation of Aristide’s determination to take all power at every level raised serious questions about whether he would ever permit an election that might result in his having to surrender control. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Organization of American States, the European Community, the Clinton White House, the US Congress, and the so-called “Friends of Haiti”—France, Canada, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile—all denounced the patently fraudulent outcome. The only effect of their criticism, however, was to intensify FL’s efforts to consolidate power. Although in the weeks before the date scheduled for runoff elections, the OAS attempted to negotiate some sort of face-saving compromise, Aristide was not in a conciliatory mood. “We took power and we took it for good,” President René Préval shouted to a crowd of enthusiastic supporters.

Aristide had plainly hoped to emerge from the May 2000 elections with a parliamentary supermajority allowing him to amend the constitution and eliminate all impediments to strong executive rule, and he was willing to resort to fraudulent means to do so. However, the principal reason for Aristide to hold elections at all was to legitimize the FL’s hold on power and break the political deadlock that for three years had halted the flow of foreign aid, and it was now obvious that he could not achieve both. The participation of seven FL senatorial candidates in the June runoffs would have satisfied the OAS’s objections at relatively little political cost.

Why, then, did he adopt the course he did, when it was virtually preordained that donor nations would refuse to sanction the results? And why, when the suspension of aid had been announced, did he ignore the growing crisis for nearly six months until after the US presidential election, when a vastly less sympathetic administration, with no political interest in a solution, was about to take power? The answer is no more apparent today than it was at the time.

Declaring that “respect of democratic principles has not yet been re-established in Haiti,” the European Union, together with the US, Canada, Japan, and the rest of Haiti’s traditional supporters announced a suspension of all further World Bank and IMF grants, loans, and other forms of direct aid. For Aristide and the FL it has meant that the first two years of his presidency were given over to unsuccessful attempts to extricate the country from a crisis that had been eminently avoidable and was entirely of his own making.

Fatton notes that, as a result of the political course he chose, Aristide, although swept into office by a mass movement for justice and democratic change, “came to resemble the opportunist politician who has defined much of the country’s history.” His legacy is likely to amount to little more than the unfulfilled hopes of the Haitian people and numerous obstacles to progress, including Haiti’s traditional political culture, more firmly in place than ever.

—February 13, 2003; this is the first of two articles on Haiti.

  1. 8

    Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with Christophe Wargny, Aristide: An Autobiography (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1993), p. 126.

  2. 9

    Jacky Dahomay, “The Tyrannical Temptation in Haiti.”

  3. 10

    Beatrice Pouligny, “Haïti: Deux ou Trois Raisons d’Espérer,” Libération, February 13, 2001.

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