Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Jean-Bertrand Aristide; drawing by David Levine


Haiti’s civilian leaders, including President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, have recently agreed to a plan for resolving the nation’s political crisis. But the Haitian army remains the key to the plan’s success. For as the army created that crisis late last September when it overthrew Aristide, the first freely elected president in Haiti’s history, so it will determine whether the artfully vague agreement put together in Washington on February 23 will succeed in ending it.

The army at least in size is hardly a formidable force. With only 7,000 troops, a handful of tanks, and antiquated systems of transport and communications, it is trying to keep the lid on an explosive population of six million desperately poor Haitians. So far, it has done so through sheer terror. According to Haitian human rights groups, since the coup the army has murdered 1,500 people, most of them presumed Aristide supporters or members of the popular movements that backed his presidency. Hundreds of others have been arrested and beaten, and the countless popular organizations, the trade unions and peasant and student groups, that had begun to appear in post-Duvalier Haiti have been silenced. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians suspected of being supporters of Aristide have been forced from their homes—most fleeing to Haiti’s mountainous interior, and thousands to a cool welcome in the Dominican Republic or by boat on the dangerous trip toward the United States. Not since the worst days of the Duvalier dictatorship has repression been so widespread and so brutal.

Yet the extent of the brutality also reflects the army’s dread of losing its precarious grip on power. One reason for the coup was the fear that Aristide was rallying his followers to avenge military abuses of the past. That fear has only deepened since the coup, and has been one of the main obstacles to Aristide’s return. “The army is condemned to violence,” Jean-Claude Bajeux, director of the Ecumenical Center for Human Rights and a leading social democrat, told me by telephone from Port-au-Prince. “The situation cannot last. You cannot rule a country with your finger on the trigger.”

The army has reason to fear the popular revenge that, in the absence of a functioning judicial system, has marked the brief moments of political victory for the impoverished Haitians—the fall of Baby Doc in February 1986, the overthrow of the ruthless regime of General Henri Namphy in September 1988, and the defeat in January 1991 of a coup attempt by Duvalierists, who sought to block Aristide from becoming president. Known as dechoukage—the “uprooting” of the old order—these violent episodes have left alleged supporters of the deposed regime hacked or stoned to death. Most recently, the preferred method of lynching has been the lighting of a gasoline-soaked tire around the victim’s neck—a practice called Père Lebrun, after the tire salesman in a Port-au-Prince television commercial who is shown popping his head through his product.

Until now in post-Duvalier Haiti, the people took revenge against remnants of the Tontons Macoutes, the 22,000-strong militia that directed the repression under Duvalier. The army, despite its own history of abuses, has been spared popular reprisal, partly because there has always been a reformist military leader or faction to step in and pledge its renewed commitment to democracy. Indeed, the army earned considerable good will when it supported the December 1990 elections that brought Aristide to power and blocked the coup attempt against him the following month.

Today, however, there is no disguising the army’s central responsibility for the violence against Haitians. Its persistent brutality since the coup of September 30 can be seen as a desperate attempt to postpone its moment of reckoning with the Haitian people by preventing Aristide’s return, or ensuring that, should he come back, his base of popular support would be too weak to pose a threat.

The February 23 agreement is an attempt to address this tension between the army’s fear of revenge and the popular desire for justice. But whether it serves as a foundation for democracy or a pretext for continued military dominance will depend, above all, on the army. Regrettably, the Bush administration, which is best able to bring pressure on the army to stop its repression and to submit to civilian authority, has been preoccupied with sending home the Haitian boat people. To avoid the appearance of delivering refugees to a lawless regime, the administration has downplayed the army’s human rights record. By thus providing political cover for further atrocities it has seriously damaged the prospects for the restoration of elected government in Haiti.


Aristide at first glance seems an unlikely man to set off a popular uprising. Frail and nervous, with big glasses and a gentle manner, the thirty-eight-year-old Catholic priest might be mistaken for an earnest graduate student. The business suits which he has taken to wearing since he entered politics highlight a certain youthful awkwardness. Yet the presence of a crowd will transform him. His powerful speeches, with their passionate populist message, are widely heard on the radio throughout this mostly illiterate country and have earned him a messiah-like following among the Haitian poor.


In his speeches and writings, which draw on liberation theology, he attacks the rich and condemns US influence in Haiti. Predictably this provokes deep anxiety among Haiti’s small group of wealthy merchants and landowners who cling to the privileges they enjoyed under Duvalier. As a radical priest, he was twice attacked by plain-clothes gunmen while army troops looked on, each time escaping by sheer luck. The second attack, in September 1988, as Aristide was celebrating mass at his Church of St. Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince, left thirteen parishioners dead, seventy wounded, and the church burned to the ground. The attackers singled out people wearing white, a symbol of opposition to the army.

The ferocity of the attack on his church gave Haiti’s conservative Catholic hierarchy a pretext to silence him. It tried to transfer him abroad and, when he refused, expelled him from his order: he remained a priest but had no pulpit. Having deprived Aristide of a forum within the church, the hierarchy propelled him into politics. After some months in seclusion, Aristide began attacking the elections scheduled for late 1990 as a US-sponsored sham which failed to address Haiti’s unjust social order.

Few Haitians had taken much interest in the numerous presidential candidates, who included several former Duvalier associates. But when at the last minute Aristide announced his own candidacy, voter registration surged. On December 16, 1990, under the banner Lavalas, the “Flood,” he swept Haiti’s first free and fair elections with an astonishing 67 percent of the vote. No one else received more than 14 percent.

As president, Aristide moved quickly to assert civilian authority over an army that had dominated political life in Haiti since the fall of Baby Doc. In his inaugural address on February 7, 1991, Aristide ordered six of the country’s seven highest-ranking generals—men long associated with the violence and corruption of the old order—to retire. In the ensuing months, Aristide appointed to key positions officers that he believed to be reform-minded. To head the army, Aristide chose a forty-three-year-old colonel, Raoul Cédras. Cédras had supervised the relatively peaceful December 1990 elections, and seemed to represent a new generation of young officers willing to professionalize the army. This apparent devotion to democracy singled him out from past army commanders who, hostile to civilian rule, had crushed Haiti’s first attempt at free elections in November 1987, when fourteen people were murdered at a Port-au-Prince polling place on election day, after a month of machine-gun and arson attacks on electoral offices and campaign headquarters.

Aristide also tried to restrain the notorious “section chiefs” who ran the 555 administrative units of rural Haiti, where four out of five Haitians live. The section chiefs, while formally members of the army, were in fact answerable to no one. Like sheriffs in the Old American West, flanked by dozens of hand-picked deputies, they acted in their jurisdictions as policeman, prosecutor, judge, and tax collector. Aristide renamed the section chiefs “communal police agents,” ordered them to give up their arms, and placed them under the supervision of local civilian prosecutors. Those responsible for violence or corruption were dismissed.

Aristide’s attempt to reform the army and to invigorate civilian institutions helped to reduce the incidence of human rights abuses.1 But resentment grew among military forces that had no experience with elected civilian authority. Most of the grievances later expressed by the rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers who started the September coup against Aristide reflected resentment of their loss of power and distrust of civilian rule.

Among the soldiers’ grievances, however, one deserved attention: the charge that Aristide had himself encouraged popular violence. If one looks at the number of actual lynchings under Aristide, their concern may seem overstated. By the standards of post-Duvalier Haiti, lynchings under Aristide were relatively few: some twenty-five in his first seven months, mostly of common criminal suspects.2 And although Aristide did not use his tremendous moral authority to call for a halt to the killing, there is no evidence that he directly instigated any of them.

But the army with some justification feared Aristide’s willingness to use threats of Père Lebrun as a political weapon. In late July, during the continuous twenty-four-hour trial of the leaders of the January coup attempt, two thousand Haitians stood outside the courthouse echoing Aristide’s demand of a life sentence for the accused, even though Haitian law allows a maximum of fifteen years for plotting against state security, the offense with which they were charged. Under the threat of the angry crowd, many of whom carried tires and gasoline, the court had no choice but to impose life sentences. Speaking of the trial to a group of high school students a few days later, Aristide praised the crowd’s conduct:


Aristide: “For twenty-four hours in front of the courthouse, Père Lebrun became a good firm bed. The people slept on it. Its springs bounced back. They were talking inside the courthouse with the law in their hands; the people also have their own pillows. They have their little matches in their hand, they have their little gasoline not too far away. Did they use it?”

Students: “No.”

Aristide: “That’s because the people respect the Constitution. But does the Constitution tell the people they have a right to forget little Père Lebrun?”

Students: “No.”

Aristide: “Then when they knew inside what was going on outside, inside they had to tread carefully…. When they spoke of fifteen years inside the courthouse, according to the law, outside the people began to clamor for Père Lebrun because the anger of the people began to rise a little. That’s why the verdict came out as a life sentence…. Did the people use Père Lebrun that day?”

Students: “No.”

Aristide: “But if it hadn’t gone well, wouldn’t the people have used Père Lebrun?”

Students: “Yes.”

Aristide: “…You have to know when to use it, how to use it and where to use it.”

The speech was doubly destructive. It not only condoned threats of violence, but in justifying popular pressure to impose an illegal life sentence, it also undermined the independence of the judiciary, and thus perpetuated the resort to summary justice.

Two days later, a crowd of Aristide’s supporters turned on the National Assembly. Elected at the same time as Aristide, the legislators were then preparing a vote of no confidence in Aristide’s prime minister, René Préval, in order to protest what they claimed were Aristide’s inadequate consultations with them. For the next week, the galleries above the legislative chamber filled daily with hostile spectators who threatened the parliamentarians with Père Lebrun. Several legislators were beaten or attacked. After a week of unanswered requests by the Assembly for protection, the police were finally sent in to disperse the crowd. Even then, however, Aristide did not personally condemn the intimidation by his supporters.

The following month Aristide completed what seemed the high point of his presidency—an address to the UN General Assembly and a triumphal tour of several American cities. He then returned to a troubled nation. As he landed in Port-au-Prince on September 26, he must have heard the widespread reports of an impending coup. The next day—two days before the rebellion began—Aristide made an inflammatory speech in which he attacked the rich in Haiti for refusing to help the poor. Do not “neglect to give [them] what [they] deserve,” he urged his listeners, and then made a clear reference to Père Lebrun: “What a beautiful tool! What a beautiful instrument! What a beautiful appliance! It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful, it’s pretty, it looks sharp! It’s fashionable, it smells good and wherever you go you want to smell it….”

Aristide’s use of threats of popular violence was clearly disturbing. But the army’s suppression of human rights since his overthrow has been monstrous. When the rebellion against Aristide began, troops descended on the shantytowns and poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, firing into the flimsy houses of his presumed supporters and at anyone who dared to venture onto the street. The killings spread to the cities and towns outside the capital, and in rural Haiti the former section chiefs reclaimed their old positions, with violent results. Hundreds were murdered within days of the coup, and to this day bodies continue to be found many mornings on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Arrests without warrant and beatings are commonplace. Tens of thousands—by some estimates 200,000—are in hiding.3 Raoul Cédras kept his post as commanding general after the coup; if he has been concerned to limit the army’s violence, he has been remarkably unsuccessful.

To undermine Aristide’s broad base of support, the army has attacked the numerous peasant organizations, youth groups, trade unions, and religious societies that have sprouted in Haiti since the Duvaliers, arresting their members and mistreating them or driving them into hiding. The private radio stations have been central targets. Shortly after the coup, Jacques Gary Siméon, the head of Radio Caraïbes and a known critic of the military, was beaten and assassinated. On December 10, Félix Lamy, the director of Radio Galaxie, was kidnapped by uniformed soldiers, and has not been seen since. Other journalists have been arrested, beaten, or threatened by soldiers, who have shot at broadcasting studios and driven many stations off the air. Those stations that continue no longer broadcast the news, and air only politically neutral programs.

Small as it is, the army has struck boldly. On October 7, armed soldiers broke up a meeting between junta representatives and a delegation from the Organization of American States (OAS) in Port-au-Prince, sending the diplomats into panicked flight. The same day, soldiers stormed the Legislative Palace, pointing guns and waving hand grenades, to force the National Assembly to declare the presidency vacant and to ratify Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nerette as Aristide’s successor. The elderly jurist, never intended by the army as more than a figurehead, has barely been heard from since.

On November 12, the day after another OAS delegation arrived in Haiti, over one hundred members of the Federation of Haitian Students held a press conference at the national university calling for Aristide’s restoration. Several truckloads of heavily armed soldiers stormed the conference and arrested and clubbed the students. The wife of Jean-Jacques Honorat, the current prime minister appointed under army pressure after the coup, offered fifty of the students their freedom if they taped a statement saying they had been treated well in detention.

On December 15, a pirate radio station calling itself Radio Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale-57 (VSN-57), a reference to the Tontons Macoutes and the year of Papa Doc’s coming to power, broadcast a list of some one hundred persons and two hundred organizations to be suppressed. Among those named were journalists, political activists, progressive priests, and officials and close associates of the Aristide government. The broadcast instructed: “When you find them…you should know what to do…. Go and do your job…crush them, eat them, drink their blood.” The list was later rebroadcast by the government-controlled Radio Nationale, ostensibly as news coverage.


Until the coup, the Bush administration won deserved praise for supporting the results of the December 1990 elections and cooperating with Aristide, a man the Reagan administration had denounced in 1987 as a Communist. The administration initially condemned Aristide’s overthrow, called for his return, cut off all aid to the Haitian government, and joined a trade embargo voted by the OAS. It also made a point of denouncing army abuses. Secretary of State James Baker “condemn[ed]…the violence committed against innocent Haitians.” The US Embassy in Port-au-Prince “condemn[ed] categorically” ongoing “indiscriminate killings, police harassment, illegal searches and looting of private homes and of radio stations, arrests without warrants, and detentions of persons without charges and mistreatment of persons in the custody of Haiti’s de facto authorities.”

The administration sent the Coast Guard to intercept the boat people, under an “interdiction” program established in a September 1981 agreement between President Reagan and Baby Doc. In the decade of interdiction before the coup, US immigration officials aboard Coast Guard cutters had conducted cursory interviews of boat people to screen for credible claims of political persecution before branding all but eleven of 23,000 of them economic migrants, and returning them to Haiti. A lawsuit in mid-November challenging this summary screening halted the process temporarily, but on January 31 the Supreme Court allowed forced repatriations to resume, and on February 24 reaffirmed the ruling. As a result the administration has started to return against their will roughly two thirds of the 15,000 Haitians who have fled their country since the coup, on the grounds that they had no credible claim of political persecution.

As the Haitians are forced back, the administration, for political if not legal reasons, has been trying to dispel the impression that it is handing them over to a brutal regime. Its denunciations of army abuses have largely stopped, and the State Department is claiming that boat people returned to Haiti face no risk of persecution.

Some of the most powerful evidence to the contrary comes from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. INS officials have permitted a third of the Haitians to enter the US to seek asylum after accepting their claims that they would face persecution if they returned. Among those found to have credible claims of persecution were forty-one of the first forty-two “double-backers”—Haitians who had been forcibly repatriated, on the grounds that they were not political refugees, but then encountered persecution and fled again.

The day after advocates for the refugees made public that the INS accepted the double-backers’ claims of persecution, the State Department announced that its representatives in Haiti had themselves investigated the situation of some of the double-backers and found that they had not been persecuted. But the speed of these “investigations” makes them highly suspect, in view of the extreme difficulty of collecting accurate information on violent abuses under such repression. INS officials also report that the administration has tried to get them to reduce the acceptance rate for Haitians. One official told me that there is “very intense pressure to get these numbers down to a more acceptable level.”

In any event, asylum remains a flawed mechanism for protecting the Haitian refugees. To qualify for asylum under US law, proof is required that a particular individual might be singled out for persecution. But at times of widespread and severe repression, as in Haiti today, it is often impossible to produce such proof. In such situations, US law authorizes granting “temporary protected status” to exiles in the United States—a form of provisional refuge which at various times has been granted to Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Liberians, Salvadorans, and Somalis. But the administration has refused to grant it to the Haitian boat people, and has threatened to veto Congressional efforts to do so.

Washington’s preoccupation with sending the boat people home, and its lack of public criticism of army atrocities, have handicapped the OAS efforts to secure the army’s cooperation in resolving Haiti’s political crisis. By providing political cover for the army’s continuing attacks on popular movements, the administration is permitting the army to continue its terror, and potentially to sabotage the recent accord.

The other principal source of pressure, the OAS trade embargo, was at first thought likely to bring the army quickly to its knees, since Haiti has no domestic source of oil and little capacity for oil storage. After two months without an oil delivery, it was widely believed, army resistance to Aristide’s return would collapse. But because the embargo never became a blockade, the theory was never put to the test: three times in the five months since the coup the army was able to arrange for oil tankers to slip into Port-au-Prince.

On February 4, the administration lifted the embargo for the assembly industry—the collection of factories, many owned by American businessmen, that use cheap Haitian labor to assemble garments and electronic goods for export to the United States. Although the US promised to substitute other mechanisms for pressuring the army and its financial backers among the Haitian elite, such as denying them visas and freezing their private bank accounts in the US, these sanctions have yet to be imposed.

The embargo was always controversial in any event. In addition to causing severe deprivation among Haiti’s poor, it may also have helped to enrich the army, its supposed target, by driving up the price of gas and other imports now controlled by the military. Still, by easing the embargo without replacing it with other forms of pressure, the administration is encouraging the army to resist a settlement.

The agreement brokered by the OAS between Aristide and representatives of the National Assembly calls for restoring Aristide as president, but sets no time for his return, other than specifying that it will be after the assembly approves Aristide’s compromise choice to become prime minister, René Théodore, the fifty-one-year-old head of the centrist Haitian Unified Communist Party and a former Aristide opponent. By accepting this process of transition even in these unspecific terms, Haiti’s established politicians, many of whom spent a good part of the prior six years running for president themselves, appear to recognize the futility of their hope of permanently blocking Aristide’s return.

The army did not participate in the negotiations, but its acceptance of their outcome is critical, and its potential for violence and its fears are addressed throughout the accord. The civilian leaders who signed the accord vow to “halt the repression,” “guarantee civil liberties,” and “impede every attempt at vengeance and settling scores.” Aristide, responding to criticism of his speeches endorsing Père Lebrun, has reaffirmed the opposition to popular violence that he has voiced from exile, pledging to “abstain from any ambiguous declaration that is susceptible of being interpreted as incitement to violence.” Aristide and the Assembly leaders have agreed to an OAS civil observer mission, OAS-DEMOC, which would try to protect civilians and the army from each other, and they affirm the importance of creating a police force independent of the army, as required by Haiti’s popularly approved 1987 Constitution, but never implemented because of army resistance.

The accord is ambiguous about whether the army will be made legally accountable for its recent acts of violence against the Haitian people—an eventuality which the army has, of course, resisted. Aristide has insisted that Cédras be held responsible, through prosecution or exile, for the mass killings since the coup. While the accord never mentions Cédras by name, in it Aristide promises “to respect the acts taken or ratified” by the National Assembly, a reference to its recent appointment of Cédras to a three-year term as army commander-in-chief. On the other hand, the accord also proclaims “a general amnesty, except for common criminals.” As I write, Aristide continues to maintain that the exception for common crimes permits punishment of Cédras for the murders by the army since the coup.

Aristide’s obsession with Cédras may reflect his sense of personal betrayal by the officer he himself appointed to head the army. It may also reflect his mistaken perception that the rank-and-file soldiers, to whom he had already promised a general amnesty, remain loyal to him, and were simply following orders in carrying out the coup, and in committing subsequent atrocities. And Aristide’s concentration on Cédras may reflect pressure from Aristide’s supporters, who are insisting that he not capitulate on what they see as a symbolically important point, at least until the army agrees to a specific date for his return.

But while Cédras himself has maneuvered to stay in command, much of the killing, and even the coup itself, have been directed by lower-ranking soldiers who, lacking the financial security of the senior officers, felt most threatened by Aristide’s efforts to reform the corrupt and lawless army. Indeed, many of those involved in the negotiations see Cédras as the person most capable of forcing the army to abide by any agreement—in contrast to such hard-line junior officers as those who, trying to scuttle the negotiations, recently shot up Théodore’s house and killed his bodyguard.

Yet the issue of legal accountability is central to any political solution in Haiti. As an act of national reconciliation, amnesty for participation in the coup—a crime against the state—may be appropriate. But those most responsible for murder and other crimes against individual Haitians should be disciplined or prosecuted, both to discourage the recurrence of abuses and to dissuade the Haitian people from retaliating themselves. The UN-sponsored peace accord now being implemented in El Salvador could serve as a model. There committees are being formed under international supervision to investigate serious abuses of the past decade and to rid the Salvadoran army of those soldiers found guilty of abuses.

Whether the Haitian army, like its counterpart in Salvador, will agree to some system of legal accountability remains to be seen. But the prospect of indefinitely trying to pacify a more and more desperate population is hardly a pleasant one, and the army may be willing to make some compromise with Aristide.

Yet without international pressure, not only from the OAS but also directly from the United States, the crude and undisciplined Haitian army is likely to resist a civilian system of justice. Washington has a long history of successfully influencing the Haitian military. Duvalier’s departure was arranged one week after an announced cutoff in US aid. The overthrow of the brutal Namphy regime happened after the army came to realize that his presence would preclude warmer US relations. The March 1990 resignation of then-President General Prosper Avril, at a time of accelerating violence and broken electoral promises, appears to have been hastened by a long night of discussion with US Ambassador Alvin Adams.

That it has such influence makes the Bush administration’s policy toward Haiti particularly scandalous. The main aim of US, and OAS, policy toward Haiti should be not simply to arrive at a political settlement, regardless of its terms, as a way of halting the flow of refugees. The aim should also be to force the army to end its terror and to accept some legal system of justice as the alternative to the summary popular justice it so fears. Establishing some mechanism for holding the army legally accountable—not pursuing the symbolic issue of Cédras, as Aristide has seemed determined to do—is the key to the future of democracy in Haiti. But the army will resist this critical step without firm pressure from Washington, including strong public demands that the army accept the rule of law, and, if it does not, further sanctions. Until that happens, elected government in Haiti cannot emerge from the shadow of the army’s weapons.

February 27, 1992

This Issue

March 26, 1992