On a sweltering morning in Port-au-Prince, in July of 1915, a party of gentlemen attired in black morning coats, striped pants, and bowler hats strolled past the wrought-iron gates and around the courtyard of the elegant mansion that housed the French legation and pushed through a side door. When the French minister stepped forward to meet the gentlemen—whom he recognized as the crème de la crème of Haitian society most of them light-skinned, and educated, like their fathers before them, in the finest schools of Paris—they ignored him, shouldered their way roughly past, and began searching through the sumptuous parlors and then through the back rooms, until at last they uncovered, cowering in a tiny bathroom, one General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, president of the Republic of Haiti. After managing, with some difficulty, to break the president’s terrified hold on the rack of chamber pots, the gentlemen dragged his prone body out of the building, through the cobblestoned courtyard, and heaved it over the spiked-iron fence to the screaming mob beyond.

“There was one terrific howl of fury,” a young American diplomat reported,

I could see that something or somebody was on the ground in the center of the crowd, just before the gates, and when a man disentangled himself from the crowd and rushed howling by me, with a severed hand from which the blood was dripping, the thumb of which he had stuck in his mouth, I knew that the assassination of the President was accomplished. Behind him came other men with the feet, the other hand, the head, and other parts of the body displayed on poles, each one followed by a mob of screaming men and women.

The diplomat hurried back to the American legation and there composed a brief cable for the secretary of state in Washington: “MOB INVADED FRENCH LEGATION, TOOK OUT PRESIDENT, KILLED AND DISMEMBERED HIM.”1 That afternoon, on President Wilson’s order, the Navy Department radioed a message to Rear Admiral William B. Caperton, commanding the armored cruiser USS Washington, which was on patrol just off the Haitian coast: “STATE DEPARTMENT DESIRES AMERICAN FORCES BE LANDED PORT-AU-PRINCE AND AMERICAN AND FOREIGN INTERESTS BE PROTECTED.” Shortly before six o’clock, 330 khaki-clad US Marines came ashore north of Port-au-Prince and marched upon the capital. They had come to restore order, to protect American interests, and to “professionalize” the Haitian Army. They would remain nearly twenty years.

Six decades have passed since the Marines departed Haiti, leaving behind a few well-paved roads, a handful of new agricultural and vocational schools, and an American-trained, “nonpolitical” army. As I write, in early October, another several hundred American troops are preparing to disembark in Port-au-Prince. Their stated mission, once again, is to “retrain” and “professionalize” the Haitian army and thereby “get it out of politics.” Their larger task, however, and that of the hundreds of other foreign troops and police accompanying them, is to make possible the return to the vast white presidential palace of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a tiny, bespectacled man who, even in Haiti’s long and colorful history of delirious emperors, mad kings, and paranoid dictators, stands out as an extraordinary political phenomenon.

Before the Haitian military overthrew him and expelled him from the country, on September 30, 1991, Father Aristide had spent scarcely thirty-one weeks in the Palace—a brief span though by no means the briefest in Haitian history. (The unfortunate President Sam, for one, was in office for barely five months, and he was only the last and least lucky of a series of eight men who had occupied the Palace during the seven riotous years before the American invasion.) Aristide’s administration was the sixth, or arguably the seventh (depending on how you count), to hold the Palace since Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country, on February 7, 1986, and thereby opened the current parenthèse—the “parenthesis” of disorder and political struggle that has traditionally separated the fall of one Haitian ruler and the rise of the next.

What distinguishes Aristide from the rest, however, is neither the brevity of his tenure nor the abruptness of his departure but the fact that his exile is scheduled to come to an end. The senior officers of the Haitian army, under an accord signed July 3 in New York, have agreed that the president they deposed should return to Haiti and reoccupy the Palace. This is something new in the history of Haiti, which has, since winning its glorious independence in 1804, seen forty-odd men and one woman attain the Palace and then leave it in various ways—one by execution, one by suicide, two by assassination, one by fiery explosion (consuming the Palace and the president along with it), five by more or less natural death, and twenty-odd by various sorts of violent overthrow. In those 189 years, in which a score or so deposed presidents have lived out their forced and generally opulent retirements in Paris and Kingston and New York, no ruler has ever returned from exile to retake power. And yet according to the so-called Accord de Governors Island—named for the spot of land in New York Harbor where it was negotiated and signed—President Aristide is to return to the white palace in Port-au-Prince on October 30.


As I write, there is a new prime minister in Haiti, chosen by Aristide and inducted into office at the end of August in Washington, and a “new campaign of terror,” orchestrated by elements in the police and army.2 The prime minister, Robert Malval, is a light-skinned businessman from an old elite family, whom the president chose both for his political charm and for his lifelong connections among the country’s powerful. The campaign of terror, carried on largely—but by no means exclusively—in the vast slums that engulf the capital like tumors that have overwhelmed their host, constitutes a more extreme phase of the efficient political repression that began with the coup d’état two years ago. Diplomats and human rights observers in Haiti agree that it is “the worst wave of politically related violence…since the early days” after the coup.3

Even on the very day late in June when Aristide and his associates and Cédras and his officers began working out their accord in New York, in Port-au-Prince heavily armed police were invading a church during mass and beating up parishioners who had shouted the deposed president’s name—a scene broadcast live on the state television network. Scarcely a week after the accord was signed in July police and armed civilians violently broke up peaceful, pro-Aristide demonstrations in Port-au-Prince. On August 17, prominent supporters of Aristide who were attempting to hang posters of the president in an effort to test the regime’s sincerity were beaten in broad daylight by uniformed police. From Washington, President Aristide protested:

The bread that the people of Haiti need most is the bread of peace, the bread of security. If citizens want to hold a photo of the president in their hands, they should be able to do so without being beaten. If citizens want to speak to journalists, they should be able to do so. If people want to walk the streets day or night without being victims of terrorism, that must become a reality also.4

Fifteen days after he uttered these words, Aristide had his answer. On the morning of September 11, during a service commemorating the fifth anniversary of a horrific massacre in Aristide’s church, armed men wearing civilian clothes and carrying walkietalkies entered the Church of the Sacred Heart in downtown Port-au-Prince and demanded that Antoine Izmery, a prominent Haitian businessman and longtime Aristide supporter, accompany them. The men led him out to the street where, before the eyes of a number of passers-by—and perhaps fifty yards away from a truckload of police who had been patrolling around the church—the men forced Izmery to kneel on the pavement and put his hands behind his neck, whereupon one of the men placed a gun to his left ear and executed him.

Three days earlier five people were killed when Evans Paul, who had been elected mayor of the capital at the same time Aristide became president, attempted to re-occupy his office. During the first three weeks of September alone, at least fifty people are thought to have been assassinated in the capital, an uncertain number of them having disappeared at night, only to reappear in the early morning as corpses, left like offerings on the filthy streets of Port-au-Prince. Arson, murder, mysterious bursts of gunfire during the night—all the tactics of street terror by which the Haitian political conversation is lent emphasis and tone in times of stress—are clearly on the rise. On September 21, the “civil mission,” established by the United Nations and the Organization of American States to monitor human rights violations in Haiti, spoke of “armed groups…preparing to commit violent acts,” the drawing up of “death lists,” and an “alarming” number of “arbitrary executions, suspicious deaths, kidnappings and forced disappearances.”5 On October 5, thirty armed civilians firing automatic weapons attacked a meeting in a Port-au-Prince hotel, firing upon, among others, a United Nations Security officer, and narrowly missing Mayor Paul, who had escaped moments before.

“The situation can be changed,” Aristide had said in late August. “The situation has to change”—implying, it appears, that if “l’insécurité,” as Haitians call it, persisted, he might decline to return. To the authors of the violence, of course, this is scarcely a threat; preventing the president’s return is precisely their object. Aristide’s warning is instead directed at the United Nations, under whose auspices the pact was concluded. For his part, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general, has vowed that severe economic sanctions, which were imposed in June and lifted after Malval took office, will “automatically” be reimposed if “numerous violations of…human rights and fundamental freedoms” are uncovered in Haiti.6 These conditions would appear to have been fully satisfied; and yet the installation of Robert Malval means that in reimposing sanctions the United Nations would be placing itself in the somewhat absurd position of punishing Aristide’s own government.


Malval, however, appears to have secured at most very limited authority over the governmental apparatus—as of this writing, many of his ministers have not even managed to occupy their offices—and even less over the fractious and rebarbative Haitian military. From Washington, Aristide raged that Cédras and Colonel Michel François (the Port-au-Prince police chief who is generally thought to control the paramilitary forces doing most of the killing) were “assassins” and demanded their “immediate” removal—while stopping short, however, of calling for the reimposition of sanctions.

Clearly, the crux of the matter will be “the international force,” or “technical mission,” or “mission in Haiti,” or any of the other euphemisms by which the UN’s multilateral military force is known. That President Aristide, whose past rhetoric has been defiantly nationalistic and—on occasion—vividly anti-American, may return to Haiti thanks in large part to the assistance of American troops is a very ticklish matter. The provisions involving foreign forces have been vociferously protested by political parties of both the left and the right. For this reason, the language of the Governors Island Accord on this point—number five of a ten-point document—is especially vague:

  1. Implementation, following the agreements with the constitutional Government, of international cooperation:

a) technical and financial assistance for development;

b) assistance for the administrative and judicial reform;

c) assistance for modernizing the Armed Forces of Haiti and establishing a new Police Force with the presence of United Nations personnel in these fields.

As I write, the specific rules of engagement for the forces remain unclear, though the 590 Americans, according to Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, will be undertaking a “civil affairs mission,” which, he says, “is not a peacekeeping role.”7 Another, unnamed, official told the Times that the Americans will “have a narrow mandate to be there and rub off on the police and the army, who magically by osmosis are supposed to behave themselves; to conduct themselves more professionally.”8

One need not be intimately familiar with Haitian politics to recognize this as a dubious strategy. Although Clinton administration officials told the Times that the UN force “will be lightly armed and will have no mandate to stop Haitian soldiers and paramilitary elements from committing atrocities,” it is clear that, for the Governors Island Accord to have any chance of success, the soldiers and sailors and technical experts of the multilateral force must somehow accomplish two broad and very complicated tasks: they must help reduce the political violence that Haitian soldiers and their civilian associates are now inflicting on Aristide’s supporters; and they must somehow protect the men who have wielded power during the last two years—particularly the “ti soldats,” or “little soldiers”: the enlisted men—from the retribution of Aristide’s followers.

These two goals remain closely linked: the current repression is aimed both at intimidating Aristide’s better-known supporters and at dismantling his political network, mostly by murdering his most important followers in the slums; and it is precisely these followers, those who survive at any rate, who would be in a position to mobilize “the streets” for the president, and against the army and his other enemies, if he returns. Though his critics might say otherwise, President Aristide is by no means the first Haitian leader to make some use of street justice—violent popular retribution has been a traditional accompaniment of political change in Haiti—but for a number of reasons he has had an especially difficult time controlling it.

The central peculiarity of the Governors Island Accord is that it may well make political retribution more rather than less likely. For the ten points of the accord include no provision for the legitimate application of justice—on the contrary. Though officers of the Haitian Army violently overthrew the legally elected and internationally recognized leader of their country and then proceeded to murder a large number of his followers—estimates of the number killed range from five hundred to several thousand—the accord requires that Aristide grant an amnesty to those responsible. Only Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras, the commander in chief, will bear any official responsibility, and that almost ludicrously light: the general, according to point number eight, “has decided to avail himself of his right to early retirement….” (It is understood, though not formally inscribed, that the general will take a number of colleagues with him.)

These provisions are the heart of the accord; they made it possible and, at the same time, they constitute its fatal flaw. “This was the sine qua non of the thing,” a close colleague of Aristide’s told me by telephone from Port-au-Prince. “Without the amnesty there would have been no agreement.” It is likely that only the clear threat of international—which is to say, American—armed intervention in Haiti could have forced Haitian officers and their well-to-do backers to accept both Aristide’s return and punishment for staging the coup against him; but the Americans, for their part, showed themselves distinctly unwilling to undertake such an intervention; Aristide, after almost two years in exile, had to take what he could get. He was forced, in other words, to sign on to a Faustian bargain. In order to attain international support to return to the Palace, he essentially agreed to treat the coup d’état and the killing that followed it as if they had never happened.

Politically and personally, this had to be enormously painful for Aristide to do—it was precisely his reluctance to commit himself to such a deal that led to the collapse of the so-called “Washington Agreement” of February 1992, and he agreed to these terms now only under enormous pressure. (A “senior diplomat” at the United Nations described to one reporter how, when Aristide had hesitated to sign the accord without having more assurances that certain officers would be purged, the president of Haiti was presented with “a simple choice: ‘Sign the agreement or return to Washington and begin applying for a green card.”‘)9

Put in these terms, the choice was quite clear: Aristide signed. But, as he must have known, he was putting his name to a deeply flawed document, one that lacks provisions for adequate enforcement, and much else. What is most painfully missing from the accord, making something of a mockery of its provisions for “assistance for…judicial reform,” is any idea of justice. And it is on the idea and the promise of justice that Father Aristide has built his life and his career.


It was during the early days of the dechoukaj—the “uprooting” that followed the fall of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986—that I first visited the Church of St. Jean Bosco, on the edge of the great slummetropolis of La Saline. The first burst of celebration and retribution had ended, but the images remained indelible: Haitians dancing in the streets, passing among themselves bottles of clairin, the cheap Haitian rum; invading the hastily abandoned homes of Duvalier’s associates and stripping the walls bare, ripping out even the electrical fixtures and the plumbing. Angry crowds of poor Haitians surrounding an unlucky Tonton Macoute—no longer the arrogant, all-powerful murderer he had been as one of Duvalier’s henchmen but now a frightened, pleading man in civilian clothes, having hurriedly discarded his blue denim uniform—and hacking him apart with machetes. Other Macoutes were stoned, or covered with gasoline and burned alive. Their remains were left lying in the sun to be further abused, or in some cases they were paraded through the streets like war trophies: a bloody severed head speared on the end of a pole; a shrunken, charred torso lashed to a wooden strut like a roasted pig.

“I stood and marveled at the justice of the people,” Father Aristide told me as he sat in his church that March, startling me with the passion in his voice, the proud delectation with which he drew out the word “émerveillé.” He smiled patiently at my surprise, and at the inevitable question: How could he, a priest, call such acts “justice”? How could he countenance mobs burning men alive in the streets? “One must know when to look at the acts of the people and judge them as a psychologist, not as a priest,” he replied, and then, a bit more heatedly, “Our consciences should be clear”—this drew nods from several of the young people seated at the table with us—“These Macoutes were Satan,” he said intensely, leaning forward until his face was only a few inches from mine, “We saw Satan incarnate in certain of these Macoutes. It was the people who suffered, and the people themselves who decided to act; and in this they were doing God’s work.”

By then, everyone in Haiti was familiar with these simple and powerful equations—that political exploitation and repression equal Satan’s work; that the struggle for liberation and revolution equal the work of God. These were, after all, the bedrock teachings of the ti kominite legliz, the “little church communities” or “base communities” that had sprouted around the country to spread the teachings of liberation theology. The thirty-two-year-old Father Aristide had quickly become the ti legliz’s most famous leader. Even while Duvalier still clung to power, Aristide had risen in his church to identify the dictator, personally, with Satan.10 In 1985, ten months before the dictator fled—when few would have dared to predict that such a thing could come about so soon, and with so little bloodshed—the tiny priest had stood in the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince and delivered an unforgettable sermon.

If one sought a model of liberation theology preaching, of the grafting of the teachings of the Bible to their implications for present-day social action, one could scarcely do better than “A Call to Holiness,” delivered during Holy Week, 1985. Beginning with the proposition that “Jesus is truth,” the young priest proceeds to tell the truth as he sees it, remarking on, among other things, the strange absence of Haitian saints in the Church of Rome; the iniquity of “the big capitalist bosses” who, every time they “pay out one dollar,…take in four”; the biblical admonition for periodic land reform (“The year of grace demands a redistribution of the land”). But nothing that comes before prepares one for the climax:

As a roaring lion, and a raging bear, so is a wicked ruler over the poor people” (Prov 28:15). Those are not my words. If those words make you feel angry, they’re right there in your Bible: rip out the page, but don’t try to beat me up, because those are not my words.

To become more holy, to do God’s will, Abraham accepted to sacrifice his only son.

And you too, whatever your life may be, whatever your work, whatever your prestige, the only honest and holy route is to be willing to sacrifice all to do the Lord’s bidding. And during this sacrifice you may receive many blows…. I expect to receive blows, too, and you must expect that also, even though it is not what we hope for; we must expect it.

St. Paul says: “Thrice was I beaten, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck….Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:25–28).

Thus must we expect to suffer to make our church holy, and to do the bidding of the Lord. To do the will of the Lord, you must learn to choose the Lord—or else you choose the devil.

To live a holy life you must make that choice. You cannot be holy and make compromises with Satan. You have to think the way the fellow in Psalm 1 thinks: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.”

When I was thinking about this psalm, I was praying, and I will tell you how I put the psalm to paper:

“Hallelujah for men and women in Haiti who do not join forces with the malevolent regime. Hallelujah for the Haitians who do not enter into the gluttonous pillaging by a band of the bloodthirsty, in whose midst brother sells brother….Hallelujah, because the path of those Haitians who reject the regime is the path of righteousness and love, and this is what the Lord requires. Where there is beating, breaking, and destruction, the righteous man is not. The way of the Lord is the way of justice, and justice blooms on the banks of Deliverance.”


To denounce “the malevolent regime” and its “gluttonous pillaging,” to urge Haitians in the name of “righteousness” to “reject the regime,” and to do it from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince a few blocks from the Palace—in the spring of 1985, this was an act of almost reckless courage. In its three decades of power, the Duvalier regime had not shown itself reluctant to murder priests and, before this act of the drama had concluded the following February, it would demonstrate its willingness to do so once again. The strength of Aristide’s voice (magnified by the audio cassettes by which his followers spread his words around the country), his unfailing insistence that the truth must be told and that “justice” must be done, had begun to make him a hero; the first attempt on his life, coming the week before Duvalier finally fled, began the apotheosis into myth:

That morning, before the demonstration was to take place, I was to say my usual nine o’clock Sunday morning Mass…. I went into the sacristy and I saw through the grating that the courtyard in front was full of people holding tree branches in their hands—in Haiti, a sign of a crowd ready to demonstrate. I hurried into the church, where two priests were saying the early morning Mass. I sat down on a chair near them, and I could hear the people inside and outside chanting: “Miracle, miracle,” and waving the branches above their heads…. Suddenly I saw a man appear before me with a revolver trained on me. I didn’t know if he was going to shoot me, or what he was going to do with it. But the way I felt about it then—as I still do, years after—was that because of my temperament, my conviction, my faith, my duty and my responsibility, if I were to die, let me die in my place, where I belong. Therefore I just sat there, waiting, and he pointed the revolver at me, and then—miracle, miracle—he opened it, took out the bullets, and handed the gun and the bullets to me.

It was the first attempt, but the pattern of its elements—the unearthly foreshadowings (“miracle, miracle”), the confrontation, the absolute calm at the moment of what seems certain death—would reappear. “The day of my death had come and had gone, and I was still alive,” Aristide writes. “…But as I have said, there is always a first time, but never a last.” A year and a half later, in the midst of the strikes and urban violence of August 1987, Aristide and several colleagues traveled north to say an open-air mass in memory of several hundred peasants who had been murdered in and around the village of Jean-Rabel. Saying mass in the capital that morning, Aristide paused to tell his congregation that he felt “as if I were saying my own funeral Mass….” Later that day, as he stood in the open air before the crowd at Pont-Sondé:

I heard a sound like a gun being fired. And of course, it was a gun being fired. They fired over and over, several men…people were falling and running in all directions. Near me, I could see three men in hats, wearing white, revolvers in hand, shooting in different directions.

One of them pointed his gun directly at me, standing there. I was standing there because at that moment I was unable to run and leave everybody. I could not take to my heels like a bad pastor, and leave my sheep behind to face the guns. Even though it was obvious that, strategically speaking, it would have been better for me to protect myself, I was incapable of it. I felt calm, and I stood there, and I saw the gun…and I heard the noise of the bullets. He missed me, and began again, and again I saw the smoke and heard the noise, and he missed me again. And then I saw him begin to move backward, and surely his hand must have trembled, because he shot again, and again he missed. And then suddenly I heard a woman say: “Lie down!” and she grabbed my foot, and I found myself beneath a mountain of people who were protecting me….

Here the ambience of miracle, the shadow of heavenly protection, is more explicit, felt instinctively by the would-be assassin and reflected back to the priest in the trembling of his killer’s hand. By now Aristide had come into open conflict with his order and his Church; his superiors had tried to transfer him out of the country, and had been blocked—in the first instance of another pattern that would be repeated—by “the people,” a group of whom occupied the Cathedral and staged a hunger strike there. Aristide’s criticism of the Haitian Church, and “the man in Rome,” would become increasingly bitter. (To the military junta that replaced Duvalier, Aristide writes, “the cold country to our north and the man in Rome were dictating strategy.”) By now, Aristide was well on his journey from priest to leader, and then to symbol. “Through us, the people gained strength,” he writes. “Through the story of our triumph over the forces of evil, the people were heartened. If we could face death and not die, then they could face death and not die.”

That many drew this lesson from the improbable survival of Aristide is in contestable; but of course the lesson wasn’t true: if the Almighty had chosen to drape his cloak about the little priest, he withheld it from many ordinary Haitians. Many people would die, and are still dying. A year later, in 1987, when screaming, howling Duvalierists invaded St. Jean Bosco as Father Aristide said mass, and began hacking at parishoners with machetes and shooting them with automatic weapons as the panicked people rushed about before the priest’s horrified eyes, at least thirteen people did die, and probably more. (The attackers doused the church with gasoline and burned it down, together with the corpses lying amid the pews inside.) Aristide, incapacitated by one of his “nervous crises,” was virtually kidnapped by the Church, and secreted away from both enemies and supporters.

It didn’t matter, though. Within days, the military government of the time—a particularly bloody and decadent affair led by General Henri Namphy and a group of former Duvalierist cronies—would fall to a coup. Aristide himself, shorn of his church, had already become something much larger than a radical priest. White-robed, hands outstretched Christ-like as he preached, he had become pure symbol: the one righteous leader in a nation shorn of them, the pure-hearted bringer of Justice.


The word itself comes early and often in Aristide: An Autobiography, appearing first on the lips of his maternal grandfather, who “played the role of justice of the peace” in Port-Salut, the tiny village on Haiti’s remote southern peninsula where Aristide was born on July 15, 1953. Though his father died shortly after he was born and his mother moved to the capital with her small family—the infant Jean-Bertrand and a sister two years older—she brought the children back to spend summers in their home village, and to live in the house of her father. That house, Aristide writes, “was not in the heart of the village, but…among the hills, the ‘mornes,’ as we call the greater part of the country, those cultivated hills where two-thirds of Haitians live. There are no trees; the deforestation is so great that erosion is progressing rapidly. There are neither roads, nor water, nor electricity…nor agronomist.”11 In other words, a typical Haitian village, where peasants have seen their plots grow progressively smaller over the decades as they have been divided among successive, ever larger generations; where the relentless harvesting of trees (to make way for more precious farmland and to produce charcoal for cash) has led to catastrophic erosion—and, during the last few decades, to a vast migration to the slums of the cities.

Aristide paints a rather idyllic picture of the countryside, emphasizing its “sense of community with egalitarian aspirations”:

Try to imagine a group of about three dozen [peasants]. Since they never had clocks or watches, the lanbi, or [conch-shell], served as a signal to gather the work gangs, the konbit. Among them I discovered an organized people, their tools made by those who wielded them, who showed perfect solidarity in their work. It was an egalitarian social organization whose guiding purpose was to furnish the necessary food for each family. Had it not been for the abuses of the local potentates, and sometimes the caprices of the weather, they would have succeeded.

Into this Eden has wriggled the snake of arbitary power; for overshadowing the bucolic solidarity of the Haitian countryside is the predatory Haitian state, which extracts the wealth and prosperity from the country and its people like some enormous and insatiable bloodsucker. The state functions like a perverted private enterprise by which the tiny elite—French-speaking, Catholic, predominantly foreign-educated and light-skinned—lives off the labor of the larger population, which remains predominantly peasant, Creole-speaking, illiterate, voodoo-practicing, and darkskinned. By levying extortionate taxes on agricultural production, and by granting to a select few among the elite the monopolies to import necessities, those in power in the capital have drawn out the wealth that once had been shared among the peasants, until, during the last few decades, the exhausted land, deforested and eroded, began to consume itself.

The local agent of central power is the chef de section, or sheriff, who serves as policeman, judge, tax collector, jailer, and executioner; traditionally, he has been the gros nèg, or “big man,” in the village—the middle-class landowner, the man who has the cash to hire other peasants to help gather his harvest. Aristide’s grandfather, playing “the role of justice of the peace,” appears to have been something of a gros nèg himself, and a touch of defensiveness creeps into the president’s treatment of him:

How could my grandfather have been seen as one of those rural gentleman-exploiters of peasant misery, he who shared his life and his lands with others? When I returned to the hills after months of absence I ran up the path to meet him. He was working the land with the others, a land he shared with those who had none. Although he never heard and, consequently, never used the word, he behaved like a socialist.

When people were brought to him in his role of justice of the peace, “sometimes bearing the marks of blows,” and accused of stealing a potato or a banana, Aristide’s grandfather would release them the same evening. “They took the potato because they were hungry,” he would say, “they have a right to it.” The old man, writes Aristide, knew “that the real thieves were not the ones who were brought before him.” Injustice was inherent in Haiti’s dramatically skewed social hierarchy, in which a handful of rich families drew their wealth from the sufferings of 99 percent of the people. In such a world, the law, however elegantly composed in French, became just another instrument to perpetuate injustice.

According to Aristide, his grandfather managed to straddle two worlds, holding a place in the power structure of the countryside while at the same time speaking out against it:

My grandfather did not know how to read or write, but he expressed moral and transcendental values better than the greatest books. His love for others shone in his eyes when he let fly at me, while shaving himself in the morning: “You cannot count the hairs in my beard, but you can count the people here who are suffering from injustice.”

My grandfather raged against the abuses of the most corrupt section chiefs…. He could play that role, since he was so well known by the people, but he was disgusted at the thought of belonging to a group, all too many of whom were characterized by rapacity and arbitrary conduct.

It is not quite clear which “group” is meant here—chefs de section? juges de paix? landholders?—but Aristide’s grandfather evidently had influence and power and yet managed to take advantage of both to work against the system that had given them to him. This pattern of delicate balancing his grandson would attempt to emulate in his dealings with the Church.

In the countryside, as the young man returning from the capital, he was, he admits, in “a privileged position.” “I was often regarded as the little prince returned from Portau-Prince…. I may perhaps have appeared to them like a star fallen from the sky.” During the summer, the young boy and his sister helped the peasants compose letters, tried to teach them to read and write. Early on, he says, he was “infected with the priestly virus.”

At five, he had begun school with the Salesian brothers, and thereby entered the elite group—perhaps one Haitian child in six—who have the means to attend classes regularly. Here the children, speaking only Creole, were forbidden to use it, on pain of being beaten. Henceforth, the tongue would be French: the language of Haiti’s laws, of its wealthy, the language of exclusion—the language of power, or, as Aristide puts it, the instrument of “linguistic servitude.” He excelled in it nonetheless—language would be a special talent: he eventually learned to speak eight—as he excelled in everything the Salesians offered. He was “judged to be a brilliant scholar” and knew, long before he graduated from primary school in 1966, that he would be a priest.


In Haiti, these were by far the blackest years. “Impossible to darken that night,” wrote Graham Greene, a visitor of the time. Aristide, looking back, remarks that the “violence being done to the Haitian people may have determined my priestly vocation,” but there is little evidence of it in his autobiography. He would have been four in 1957 when Dr. François Duvalier, a mumbling little country physician who wore thick spectacles, and affected homburgs and dark formal suits, was elected president. The parenthèse leading to the vote was violent and tumultuous—five governments held power in nine months—and the presidential campaigns, particularly Duvalier’s, drew enormous crowds in the countryside, but Aristide was likely too young to notice. “I began to detest the dictator I did not know” at the age of nine or ten, he says—which is to say, roughly at the climax of Duvalier’s reign of terror, when the capital was cloaked in nightly blackouts, when those foolish enough to venture out often did not return, when random brutality (the murder of citizens on the street, for example, in broad daylight, their bodies left as a warning) served the dictator as a principle means of warding off challenges to his power.

In the election—the first in Haiti in which all adults were able to cast ballots—Duvalier had won roughly two votes in three, and though pro-Duvalier officers had organized the balloting and there was substantial fraud, contemporary accounts leave little doubt of “Papa Doc’s” popularity. Still, Duvalier had gained the presidency with the help of the leaders of that “nonpolitical” army, bequeathed by the Americans, who had quickly become, in Duvalier’s words, “the arbiters of national life,” and, once arrived in the Palace, he faced a choice that has haunted Haitian presidents: Would he serve as the creature of the powerful—or fight to gain power on his own terms? He took the latter course, and set out to achieve it the only way he could: by gaining mastery over the officer corps.

This he did by establishing a rival force, a militia of men and women who would be absolutely ruthless, and loyal only to him. Duvalier drew the foot-soldiers of his “National Security Volunteers,” popularly known as the Tontons Macoutes, largely from the brimming slums, from the great masses of idle humanity blanketing the cities of a nation in which more than half the people are unemployed—illiterate, abysmally poor people whose services could be bought for a few dollars or a bit of food. A “true lumpen proletariat”—in the words of Leslie Manigat, a political science professor who served as Haiti’s president for four months in 1988—they are “pawns, susceptible of manipulation in electoral periods and a source of shock troops for mob violence in moments of crisis and unrest.”

Duvalier took these pawns and raised them up, clothed them in the blue denim and red scarves of the Cacos—the peasant irregulars who, by battling the American occupiers early in the century, had become symbols of Haitian nationalism—and personally presented them with the guns that he encouraged them to use. No one knew how many there were—ten thousand or ten times that—but they quickly became the shock troops of Duvalier’s “revolution,” serving not only as violent retainers but as, in effect, a quasi-political party, the first mass political party Haiti had ever known. The little doctor fashioned his Macoutes into a fearsome weapon, used them to murder those officers whom he could not bribe or outflank, to torture those businessmen he could not win over, to kill or exile any Haitian who had managed to attain any reputation or position that seemed a threat to the reclusive and paranoid Duvalier. All who possessed a shred of independent power, or had a prospect of accumulating any, were ruthlessly exterminated. The lucky ones—hundreds of thousands of Haitians—escaped into exile in Paris or Montreal or New York.

During these years, as Aristide completed his primary education and made ready to enter the seminary, Papa Doc was waging a virtual Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church, an institution that remained largely white and foreign-born and that had long been perceived as an extension of the Haitian elite. Macoutes invaded churches, attacked priests as they said mass, in some cases murdered them. Duvalier expelled bishops, menaced the hierarchy; from Rome, the Church responded by excommunicating him.

Aristide, at the Salesian seminary in the north of the country, did not experience any of this directly—politics “did not penetrate the seminary,” he says—but his career would be crucially affected by the results. For Duvalier would eventually succeed in defeating the Vatican, forcing it, in 1966, to offer Haiti a Concordat that, among other things, granted the dictator the right to nominate a new, Haitian-born hierarchy. Henceforth, the bishops, like so much else in Haiti, would become Duvalier’s creatures, and the dictator would ensure that his “Haitianized” hierarchy would never again presume to challenge those who held political power. This was the Church in which Jean-Bertrand Aristide studied and learned and grew to manhood—and the Church that would become one of his bitterest and his most enduring foes.

October 7, 1993

This is the first part of a two-part article.

This Issue

November 4, 1993