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


On a sunny Columbus Day afternoon, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, president of the Republic of Haiti, walked slowly down the steps of the Georgetown house in which he has made his home for much of the last two years, and faced a restless crowd of reporters and photographers. Even as he began to speak that October 12, the troopship USS Harlan County, which had arrived in the bay of Port-au-Prince the day before on a mission to land two hundred American “combat engineers and trainers” in Haiti, was beating an ignominious retreat. Onshore the “armed thugs” whose threats had prevented the troops’ landing were dancing and celebrating in the streets. Yet another agreement to return President Aristide to Haiti’s National Palace seemed near collapse.

In Washington, President Aristide spoke softly into the forest of microphones. “I am still confident that we are on the way to restore that democracy,” he told the reporters in his uncertain English.

What we have to do now is pushing to pressure in order to have some killers saying yes to the world, to democracy, because we have to save lives. We cannot let killers after two years deny what the world said…. If we don’t do that, what will happen to the US? Refugees we’ll still have.1

It was a singular moment, the nationalist president standing in the imperialist capital and appealing openly, almost plaintively, for the help of the United States—a country he had habitually referred to in his sermons and his writings as “the cold country to our north.”2 He had written bitterly of Haitians who longed to reach American shores: his countrymen fled Haiti, he had said in an essay, “because the land of snow has exploited my beloved country to such an extent that there is too little left here—in what used to be called paradise—to give my people comfort.”

The men who turn them back are agents of that same cold country that refuses visas to those whose lives it has ruined: the United States, its Coast Guard. Coast Guard cutter…those words sound to us in Haiti today like a new description of Death with his sweeping scythe.

Now, from Washington, President Aristide found himself brandishing before the American public the specter of an exodus of refugees, making use of the boat people almost as a kind of lobbying tool, a potent image meant to persuade the citizens of the “cold country” that their government had better use its power to force his return to the National Palace—or they might well find waves of unwashed Haitians in flimsy sailboats turning up among the sunbathers on Florida’s beaches.

“What will happen to Haitians?” President Aristide asked, and then supplied his own answer: “Death.” Two days later, in front of Sacred Heart Church in downtown Port-au-Prince, gunmen wielding automatic weapons ambushed the car of Guy Malary, a prominent Haitian corporate lawyer who, scarcely a month before, had agreed to become justice minister in a new, and now virtually powerless, Aristide-appointed government. Having overtaken the car, the gunmen sprayed it with automatic fire, pouring scores of bullets into the bodies of Malary, his driver, and his bodyguards; whereupon the killers (evidently in no hurry, though it was broad daylight and they were on a main thoroughfare) proceeded to pull the corpses from their seats, drag them over to the sidewalk, and arrange them in a bloody tableau.

By the next afternoon, October 15, President Clinton—citing the need to “ensure the safety of the Americans in Haiti and to press for the restoration of democracy there through the strongest possible enforcement of the sanctions” which had been reimposed on Haiti by the United Nations—ordered six American warships into Haitian waters and dispatched a company of Marines to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Foreign warships, US Marines, angry threats of “international isolation” emanating from Western capitals: all the warning sirens of foreign intervention, echoing down two centuries of a turbulent, violent history, were sounding from Washington and New York, and the self-proclaimed nationalists who held power in Port-au-Prince responded with alacrity.

“We have reached the point,” complained Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras, the military commander in chief and de facto ruler of the country, “where it seems anything can be done in this country without regard to the laws of this country.” Less legalistic was Colonel Joseph Michel François—the police chief who is widely believed to have directed the paramilitary elements that had killed Guy Malary and many others before him—who boldly echoed King Henry Christophe and the entire pantheon of Haitian would-be martyrs by vowing his determination to “stay and die in my country.” On a local radio broadcast, a spokesman for the so-called Resistance Committee to Defend National Sovereignty, a newly formed pro-military group, declared that “in order to avoid social upheaval, we must throw out the white foreigners. They are dangerous for us.”3


As the US warships took up their positions off the Haitian coast, President Aristide sat for a television interview in Washington. “I grasp this opportunity,” he told American television viewers, “to thank President Clinton, to thank the UN, because they are putting pressure through the blockade. That’s the way we can restore peace to Haiti.”4

Amid the rising cacophony, the only voices unheard were those of “the people”—pèp la—as Aristide refers to the poor Haitians of the bidonvilles, the vast “tin-can cities” that surround the capital and house the great majority of its inhabitants. “The people” had marched for him in the streets; had shielded him with their bodies to protect him from the bullets of his enemies; and, when the chance came, had made use of the only strength they possessed—their numbers—to sweep him into the Palace by the overwhelming margin of their votes.

In the enormous slums, far from the diplomats and politicians, gunfire clatered every night; each sunrise revealed corpses on the garbage-pocked dirt paths. But the words of the people of the bidonvilles were not heard on American television; Aristide, two years in exile, remained their only voice. In the bidonvilles, they had long since named him “The Prophet.”


Eleven years before, a frail twenty-nine-years-old intellectual, only two months a priest, stood before his first congregation in his first church and quoted the Scripture. He chose the passage with what his flock would come to recognize as a characteristic sense of purpose:

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are left desolate.

Open your mouth, judge righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31: 8–9)

From these Biblical verses he sought to fashion a kind of protective shield around himself, attempting to persuade the Duvalier regime, and his superiors in the Church, that, despite what they might think, he was not delving into “political action.” It was the Scriptures that demanded he give voice to the feelings of the poor gathered before him, that he serve as their tribune. He had no choice but to follow what was written, to speak for the mute.

“The other day,” he told the congregants of St. Joseph,

I was at Croix-des-Bossales…and it was raining. Under the rain, in a filthy, foul mud, the cart haulers, wet from the water of the heavens, soaking in muddy sweat, continued without respite…their black-slave labor. Cart haulers, tragic Sisyphean figures, condemned…to carry eternally in their arms the weight of the sufferings of a world of oppression!5

It was a potent image, this portrait of a cart hauler, for his poor congregants would know that, more than likely, this mud-caked, sweating man carried on his cart the great bags of charcoal that fueled the slums: the charcoal drawn from the parched countryside, where the peasants tore from the earth every last plant and stick of wood, accelerating the erosion that in turn would drive them from the land into the teeming slums of the cities; the charcoal that the peasants—who had now taken their places in the slums, subsisting in sheet-metal and scrapwood hovels—bought by the handful to fuel the fires to cook their food, covering the capital’s bidonvilles in a permanent canopy of greasy brown smoke.

Such things are not spoken of in Haiti—at least not by the lettered, and never in such indelicate detail. Aristide, by the power and specificity of his language, offered a clinical picture of how most Haitians actually lived, and he did so, during his short career as a priest, with remarkable constancy and a fidelity borne—as his listeners knew—of his own travels in what he calls “the country of sub-humanity, of oppression turned to misery.” In “the old days, before it became impossible,” he would write a half dozen years later,

I used to walk through La Saline and the other slums like it that are spreading like contagion in a city that for years has been clogged with the detritus of the deadly economic infection called capitalism. In La Saline, there are many dark byways, paths that run between two rows of shanties made of plywood and cardboard and old, disintegrating tin. One bright hot day I walked down one of these corridors, a dark byway even in the hot Haitian sun, and at the end I found a courtyard with three naked children, my country’s new generation, bathing in a puddle of garbage left from the rains of the night before…. On another day, I walked down another corridor and three young girls—wearing secondhand dresses thrown away by nice middle-class girls in a northern country and brought here by profiteering middlemen—these young girls were selling themselves for quarters and dimes and less to any man, and that was the new generation of my beloved country.

Haiti’s leaders were not ready to have their country’s blemishes held up to public gaze in this way—not in 1982, anyway; nor did they feel obliged to wait for an answer to the question the young priest had the audacity to pose to his parishioners at the end of his vivid description: “Can we continue to find normal this situation of violence imposed on the poor?” Roger Lafontant, then Jean-Claude Duvalier’s minister of the interior and the most feared man in the country, had a word with the provincial delegate of Aristide’s Salesian order. After barely two months in his first church, only three months after he had returned to Haiti from three years of study and archaeological work in Israel, Greece, and Egypt, Aristide was abruptly dispatched to Montreal, to “a pastoral institute that specialized in theological reprogramming,” as he describes it. He bore a sealed letter informing the superior that the young priest was in need of “pastoral reorientation.” He would remain in Canada two and a half years.


Twenty years before, during the dark years of Françcois Duvalier, the regime might have expelled him outright, or, depending on Papa Doc’s mood, sent Tonton Macoutes to invade his church during mass and beat his parishioners; they might even have murdered him. But these were different times: by 1982, the upper reaches of the Church were firmly under the regime’s control, thanks to a Concordat Papa Doc had concluded with the Vatican. His son’s government was concerned about its image, and preferred to exert its control in subtler ways.

Aristide had spent the darkest years in school, and then, after 1966, in the Salesian seminary in Cap Haitien, in the north of the country. There he worked with the less fortunate—“Our [training],” he says, “gravitated around one axis: to encounter and serve the poor”—and studied languages. In learning other tongues, he discovered “nothing but an extension of my love for others,” but he also found himself exasperated with the Church-imposed necessities of Latin and “the way in which it was used to disrupt communication,” seeing in this a parallel to the “French histrionics” of Haitian politicians in a country where three Haitians in four understand only Creole. In an intimation of what was to come, the young seminarian wrote protesting the Latin requirement to the prefect of studies (who showed himself, not surprisingly, quite unmoved). No matter; Aristide had begun to question authority in earnest, and to rebel; his reading of the South American novelists of the “boom”—“the antagonism between exploiter and exploited” he found they articulated—and, later, of the writings of Leonardo Boff and other liberation theologists deepened his skepticism about the timidity preached by the established Church in Haiti.

The intellectual opening of Aristide’s early manhood, his exposure to the writings of Gabriel Marcel and of the liberation theologists, happened to coincide with a political opening in Haiti. In 1971, Papa Doc, having murdered tens of thousands, having exiled perhaps one Haitian in six and attained undisputed mastery over the country and its institutions, finally succumbed to heart failure. In what many took to be his final joke, he left the country in the hands of his son, a mountainously fat, glassy-eyed nineteen-year-old who cared only for girls and fast cars and knew nothing of politics.

With the ascension of Jean-Claude came, shortly, the return in force of the Americans. President Kennedy had broken relations with the regime for a brief time in 1963, had toyed with the idea of mounting a coup; Papa Doc had thrown out the technicians of the USAID program, closed down the military aid mission, largely cut the country off. But as the decade wore on, and the dictator consolidated his power, it became clear that the temporary chill had disguised a basic commonality: the Americans had a terror of Castro sending communism “leapfrogging” through the Caribbean; Duvalier (who, whatever manner of exotic beast he was, surely was no Communist) proved himself a sleight-of-hand genius at playing the “anti-Communist card.” By the latter half of the Sixties, aid was allowed to trickle in again through the multilateral institutions. The rapprochement between Washington and Port-au-Prince was publicly sealed in July 1969 when Nelson Rockefeller, President Nixon’s special envoy to Latin America, paid a visit to Haiti and appeared on the Palace balcony, his arm around the frail and white-haired Duvalier, grinning and waving vigorously at a cheering crowd.

Now, with the old man dead, the Americans returned in force, bringing with them a reinfusion of foreign aid, which the new regime, corrupt to a much more riotous degree than its predecessor, would seize upon, and shortly begin to crave, like the purest heroin.

During the Seventies, while Aristide was studying psychology and philosophy at the state university, the regime began, slowly and haltingly, to “normalize.” The Macoutes remained, but they killed less often; the spectacular operas of daytime terror in which Papa Doc had so delighted became infrequent. Coaxed by the regime, some exiles, mainly light-skinned businessmen—the old elites who had fled Papa Doc en masse—began to return.

As it grew increasingly dependent on foreign, and especially American, money, the regime became sensitive to its reputation abroad—particularly so after 1977, with the advent of the Carter administration and its human rights policy. Aristide notes that “the end of the 1970s coincided with a more and more active militancy in Haiti,” but he forbears to mention the ironic fact that this militancy (much of it vaguely anti-imperialist and anti-American) could scarcely have flourished without the persistent pressure exerted by the Carter administration—and, in particular, by Patricia Derian, the State Department official charged with human rights; and US ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, as well as other, less wellknown representatives of American hegemony. By taking their place as the major financial backers of Duvalier, the Americans had placed themselves in a position to encourage a grudging loosening of the regime’s grip on the civil life of the country. If they so chose, anyway; literally within days of Ronald Reagan’s election, Duvalier arrested most of the better-known militants and expelled them from the country.

Still, it was heady while it lasted. Young dramatists, writers, and, above all, radio commentators quickly gained nationwide popularity and began, cautiously but unmistakably, to criticize the regime. Aristide became director of programming for Radio Cacique, contributing “commentaries on the Bible, quotes from the Bible itself, imagery, stage pieces, short plays”—all of it aimed toward “dramatizing a reality in order to speed up the raising of social consciousness, X-raying Haitian society….” In a nation in which three citizens in four were illiterate, the new-found power of radio—heard on cheap transistor models all across the isolated countryside—was something of a revelation, and it was in learning to use it, under the eye of a nervous station director, that the young priest began to develop what would become his signal technique. The station director, Aristide writes,

made repeated and strong signals to encourage me to abbreviate or change the subject. I sometimes complied, but slyly. I would drop my commentary only to quote texts from the Bible that were even more impertinent and accusatory than the commentaries themselves. The gospel in its raw form could act like a stick of dynamite.

But the young priest’s superiors in the Church considered that dynamite to be their possession, and they did not appreciate his appropriating it.


By the late Seventies, Aristide writes, he had come to the conviction that “the majority of our church had decided, if not to compromise with power, at least to be silent, and even to preach resignation.” The rhetoric here strikes a familiar note:

There were some priests who were openly on the side of the Macoutes. There were also some bad priests who accepted everything and who happily joined in social sin and in collaboration. They pointed out the poor sinners, those who stole bananas or were unfaithful to their spouses, while closing their eyes to the overall structures of corruption. They inveighed against trifles and made a covenant with the devil.

Aristide has returned full-circle to the teachings of his grandfather; 6 but the student, more zealous by far than the teacher, is determined to follow those teachings to their logical conclusion—the moral imperative to “up-root” the “structures of corruption” in Haiti. This is how, years later, he described his “theological point of view” to me:

In what we call theology of liberation, we look at what is going on and we ask ourselves, What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say confronted with this situation: people are hungry, people have no job. Jesus would say, I don’t agree with this situation, I’m going to change it. And he would do something. All of us trying to do something for the poor are doing what Jesus did.

And now, if one bishop can tell us we are wrong—then who is wrong?7

For Aristide the fruit of the gospel was clear, as he believed it should have been to any priest who was not corrupted by fear or by ambition: social revolution.

Though it is hard to imagine a national Catholic hierarchy that could wholeheartedly embrace such a philosophy, the Haitian bishops were certain to be especially hostile, for not only had their Church been violently ravaged by Duvalier’s Macoutes, but the Concordat that the Vatican had finally granted Francçois Duvalier in 1966 ceded to the regime the power to approve promotions to a newly “Haitianized” Church hierarchy. Thanks to the Vatican, that is, the regime was not only the Church’s persecutor but its partner; and, this being the case, what is most striking about Aristide’s comments about the Church are not his charges of corruption and collaboration—the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, for example, he describes flatly as “a zealous servant of Macoutism”—which are (in broad outline at least) mostly true, but his evident bewilderment before the behavior of his Church superiors.

At the time, they must have been slowly becoming aware of the seeds of rebellion taking root in the lower ranks, watered by the “opening” of the late Seventies:

Inside, in spite of the power of the system, a small group of priests resisted the Pharisees who held the reins of command. It was a group whose numbers were steadily growing and whose audience was growing even faster. These were the priests who resisted the rigidity, the degradation, and the ultimate fossilization, and who were demanding an opening of the doors and windows….

We used to meet in the late 1970s, not entirely secretly, like children who hide out in order to commit little acts of mischief, but trying not to attract too much attention from the hierarchy. I had already been “burned” a few times. Perhaps it was hoped that I would leave the country to continue my theological studies somewhere else, in Israel for example. The archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Francçois-Wolff Ligondé, had no hesitation in exiling confrères whose sermons echoed the voices of the poor by sending them into the [countryside].

During the summer of 1979, the regional provincial of the Salesians, on a stop in Port-au-Prince, proposed to the young scholar—he had just graduated from the state university with a degree in psychology—that he travel to Jerusalem to learn Hebrew and master Biblical studies. The Salesians “sincerely loved me,” Aristide writes, and they “pictured me having a fine career, once the impetuosity of youth had dissipated.”

Except for what turned out to be that brief and abortive visit in 1982, Aristide would spend almost six years abroad. By the time he returned in January 1985, he had added Hebrew and Greek to his stock of languages and completed the course work for a doctorate in psychology. His planned thesis would take up “authoritarianism and neurosis in the Old Testament.”


On January 5, 1985, he stepped off the plane into “a country in a state of general mobilization for change.”

His Church superiors tried once more to rein Aristide in, and, in a pattern that would become well established, succeeded in doing the opposite. He had understood, from the Salesian provincial delegate, that he was to teach theology in the seminary in Port-au-Prince, but on arriving to take up the appointment he encountered a familiar tone of embarrassed hesitancy from his superior: “Fine…that is true, but…we were thinking of you as a professor of the Bible, but after all…we are obliged…you will have to go to Les Cayes”—a city several hours to the south. The Salesians had in mind something of an internal exile, a kind of quarantine to allow them to take the young man’s measure (“they were very fond of me,” Aristide says, “but at the same time, they did not trust me”). As it happened, however, the dechoukaj—or uprooting, as the rebellion against Duvalier was known—would commence in the provincial cities in the spring of 1985, and the authorities had perfectly placed Aristide to take part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the two imperialisms: political and religious…. The colonial system, having disappeared from all the continents, endures in Haiti. Theology serves to “zombify” the people’s spirits in order to subjugate them more readily to traditional sovereignties.

The break that had been visible on the horizon since the young student had protested the Latin requirement had arrived. Still, Aristide’s feelings were divided; he visited a scene of criminal arson in La Saline, gazed at the carbonized bodies of the poor; but when a reporter from the national television, eager to broadcast what he expected would be the priest’s angry denunciation, thrust a microphone into his face, Aristide, torn between his outrage and the orders of his superiors, said nothing and left.

Soon some of his young followers trooped down to the television station and revealed to the nation what had happened to Aristide: the Salesians had muzzled him. The young militants occupied St. Jean Bosco, and threatened a strike if the gag order was not lifted. “I had not given them any orders,” Aristide said, in what would become a familiar—and, one suspects, increasingly semantic—assertion of passivity. The young people remained fifteen days, virtually imprisoning the priest, who was immobilized by depression—the first well-known instance of what would come to be known as Aristide’s “nervous crises.” The incident embarrassed and frightened the Salesians:

For the first time, a breach was opened between the congregation and the community. My superior was muzzling a voice that the community had liberated. After all, were we not there…for the service of the poor?

The Salesians may not have agreed with this reasoning—they had no trouble drawing some distinction between serving the poor and “doing politics—but, confronted with a mortifying, highly public incident, they backed down.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1986, the popular movement and the “official process” ran along on separate tracks; the politicians declaimed and maneuvered and struggled to position themselves for the election that the junta, pushed along by the Americans, had promised for late 1987. The militants went on demonstrating and marching and striking in the cause of “uprooting” all “the machinery of a corrupt regime that had embedded itself down to the roots of society.” The militants regarded the promised elections with contempt and vowed to boycott them; les candidats negotiated cautiously with the government, well aware that, in the history of Haiti, as one former diplomat and Duvalier official put it to me. “The government in place has always had a say in who will come to power.” The two tracks seemed fated to stretch on into the future, parallel but never meeting.

Then, in the spring of 1987, the Constituent Assembly, a much denigrated body that had been chosen in a largely ignored election the previous fall, presented to the nation a document so peculiar in its conception and so radical in its implications that it managed, all by itself, to bring the official process and the movement in the streets abruptly together. As a plan setting out a structure of government, Haiti’s twenty-eighth constitution was not a success. It posited so many assemblies and legislatures and other checks and balances, all of them largely unknown in the country’s history and all intended to prevent the rise of another Duvalier, that it was hard to see how any president elected under it could possibly govern the country. But in charting a political course the constitution was nothing less than brilliant, for it offered the very means by which the “popular movement”—distrustful of an official electoral process that, the militants were convinced, would be little more than a ruse to reconfirm the Duvalierists in power—might be persuaded to take part in the process.

The constitution provided for a “provisional electoral council,” well insulated from the government, to run the elections and to administer what instantly became the document’s most controversial provision: Article 291, stipulating that anyone who was “known for having been, by his excess of zeal, one of the architects of the dictatorship” could not take part in the election. The constitution, in other words, mandated a legal purge of the former regime. By words alone, the authors of the constitution aimed to exclude from the ranks of power all those who had occupied them for more than three decades.

The constitution was wildly popular; on a festive day in March, more than 99 percent of Haitians voting approved it.9 But there is a saying familiar to every Haitian: Constitutions are made of paper, bayonets are made of iron. Little more than a month later, General Namphy moved abruptly to place the supposedly independent electoral council under the regime’s control, while shutting down, for good measure, one of the country’s more powerful and militant unions.

The “hot summer” of 1987 marked a turning point in post-Duvalier Haiti. For the first time, the candidates, who found their interests directly threatened by General Namphy’s usurpation of the electoral council, joined the popular organizations in vigorously denouncing the actions of the regime. And for the first time, the militants managed to launch a well-organized and sustained street offensive. They declared a general strike, and enforced it by blocking streets with burning barricades and threatening to smash the windshield of any car they encountered. They succeeded in paralyzing the capital, and though the regime and its soldiers responded harshly, killing scores of demonstrators, the militants persisted and the strike held. Most remarkably—and most ominously for the regime—the opposition remained largely united. Finally, at the beginning of July, General Namphy backed down: the union offices were reopened, the independence of the electoral council was restored.

It was an important moment. The candidates, leaders of the “official opposition,” and the popular groups, owners of the streets, had managed, working together, to hand the regime a significant political defeat. But now the candidates and the militants split once more, for they had very different definitions of what constituted victory. Most of the candidates were determined to follow the path toward the elections that had been set out in the constitution. Most of the popular leaders, on the other hand, relishing the general’s apparent weakness, were convinced revolutionary triumph lay within reach. For Aristide and many others, the moment had finally come; as he describes the situation in Port-au-Prince,

Stores were closed, streets deserted, tires burned in the arteries near the center of the city. The [regime] bent but did not break. …The politicians hesitated to push their power to the limit. Was it not true that [presidential candidate] Marc Bazin, the Americans’ man, was calling for a return to work? So was the episcopal conference, which saw us menaced by “the specter of anarchy and of civil war…”

Aristide and other popular leaders, exultant over the regime’s retreat, were adamant that the moment had arrived to overthrow Namphy. The call to “uproot” gave way to another homely Creole slogan, coined by Bishop Willy Romelus, the only progressive in the hierarchy (and, not incidentally, a distant cousin of Aristide’s). Rache manyok! thundered Bishop Romelus—Pull up the manioc, leave the field clean! Uproot the illegitimate regime!

It proved a critical error, and it would have repercussions in Aristide’s later career. The failure to “uproot” Namphy exposed the weakness in Aristide’s strategy of “unarmed revolution” and the faintly mythological view of the dechoukaj on which it was based. The people may have “uprooted” Duvalier, but they were able to do so because the officers preferred to hold their troops back, and because the Americans, to some extent, helped restrain those who might have been inclined to act otherwise. Now, however, the people were trying to uproot the army, and the army not only had guns but the officers were, if pressed, quite prepared to order their troops to use them. Standing behind the officers were the Americans who, while they had no love for the monumentally incompetent Namphy, were unwilling to pull the plug on his regime without the prospect of a reasonable replacement—a nationally known politician or group of politicians, that is, who appeared to offer at least a chance of holding the country together. This the popular movement showed itself unable to provide.

So the Namphy regime tottered, wavered, but managed in the end to survive. For the popular leaders, the failure of rache manyòk brought with it a strategic cost, for it reaffirmed the belief, particularly among the more moderate well-to-do Haitians (people who had detested Duvalier and who genuinely hoped to see their country move forward) that the “popular leaders” were interested solely in revolution, that they thought only of seizing power—that in the end their talk of “true democracy” was no more genuine than that of General Namphy himself. When, at a very late hour, the leaders of a number of popular organizations formed an alliance to take part in the elections after all, to many Haitians they appeared to have exceeded the cynicism of les candidats they had spent so much time denigrating. “These guys tried and failed to overthrow the government.” as one businessman told me at the time, “so now they try to seize power through the election. They call themselves democrats—it’s a farce.” The popular leaders, as one candidate later put it with some bitterness, wanted to pull off un coup d’état des urnes—a ballot-box coup d’état.


In August 1987, the Salesians had tried once again to transfer Father Aristide—this time to Croix-des-Missions, a town about ten miles from Port-au-Prince that was known, among other things, for harboring a large number of Macoutes. Though he had packed his bags and then left the capital to travel in the north of the country, a group of his young followers learned of the transfer and rose up in protest.

A handful of young people occupied Port-au-Prince’s Cathedral and staged a hunger strike. The strike, complete with prayers and songs and speeches, was covered in detail by television and radio; it was a true “media event.” Once again, the Salesians, embarrassed and perplexed by a highly publicized crisis they did not know how to resolve, were forced to back down. Aristide would remain at St. Jean Bosco.

“They had not obeyed me,” Aristide writes of the young hunger strikers. “They were not simply defending Aristide, but a greater, more global reality, even if I had become a symbol in their eyes.” This is certainly true—the hunger strike would end in one of the few unambiguous victories of the summer—but more interesting than the observation itself is the gradual change one begins to detect in Aristide’s rhetoric. The people, taking action for themselves, have now become—in his terms—“subjects…active and self-expressive.” Aristide himself, meanwhile, having been their spokesman and leader and having released in them, through his teaching, the latent power that let them speak out and become “subjects”—Aristide is now taking his place as their instrument. Increasingly, his rhetoric will place responsibility for his decisions and actions on “the people”: he acts on the people’s will, as their will.

Scarcely a week after the victory in the Cathedral, Aristide and several other prominent ti legliz priests traveled north to say a mass in memory of several hundred peasants massacred in the town of Jean-Rabel. In a huge open shed. Aristide rose to speak:

The priest had scarcely introduced me when the Macoutes moved in, their guns turned on the podium. There was a series of explosions. I felt nothing, but I had a very clear view of their hats, the white shirts and the weapons spitting fire. Flee, throw oneself down—in such situations, a thousand and one thoughts cross one’s mind. Death is imminent. I remain standing, my arms crossed. My eyes meet those of one of the armed men who is still there, one of those perhaps who was to have shot me. Was there, in the meeting of our glances, an energy leaping from one to the other? The killer hesitated, appeared to waver, and lowered his gun. In a kind of televised slow motion, he walked clumsily backward, as if he were paralyzed.

…Am I invincible, insensible to bullets?…One might have thought so.

Many did in fact think so, particularly after he escaped another assassination attempt that night, when the car in which he and several other well-known priests were riding was ambushed on the highway leading back to Port-au-Prince by a stone-wielding mob. “In the end,” he says, “the Macoutes believed I was invincible and invisible.”

Aristide had not joined those popular leaders who belatedly embraced the elections of November 1987. During the last week of that month, while the capital was enduring an intensifying campaign of terror—mysterious fires sweeping through the bidonvilles, the intermittent clatter of gunfire, and a steadily growing number of corpses on the streets each morning—I visited Aristide at St. Jean Bosco. I was struck by his serene conviction, for though he spoke, as always, with great passion (it was impossible to take proper notes when interviewing Aristide because he tended to lean forward for emphasis, to such an extent that, after a few minutes, his face loomed scarcely a few inches from my own)—there was a certainty and a self-confidence in his manner that I did not remember from earlier conversations. “As I have always said,” he told me,

we cannot have elections with these criminals in power. That is why “Operation Rache Manyòk” had for its principal objective the uprooting of these gentlemen, to seize the ground so that true democracy, true elections, can take place…

Unfortunately, certain sectors have not accepted this regrettable reality. If they had, we would not have come to this pass…

In any event, this can only be a phase leading to revolution. For me, revolution means profound change—change of the system from capitalism to socialism. change of the [social] structure from the Duvalierist structure to a de-Duvalierized structure. Change in the full sense of the word.

To achieve this, one must continue to work through the revolutionary triangle—conscientization, organization, mobilization—to arrive at a revolution in which Haiti can transform itself at the profound level. Revolution, for me, does not necessarily mean armed struggle; it can simply mean one change, then another change all of it accomplished by a method of active non-violence.10

Even while he spoke, a few hundred feet from the church the citizens of La Saline, members of newly formed neighborhood committees—the socalled brigades de vigilance—were readying their machetes and their pikes for the “active non-violence” that would come that evening. The Macoute provocateurs had been making nightly visits to the slums, shooting people, setting fires, sowing terror. Now, Aristide said proudly, the people “are organizing to protect themselves, forming popular organizations to assure their own defense.” In the week before the election, the foot soldiers of the brigades de vigilance managed to catch a number of intruders—most of them Macoutes, but also at least two innocent security guards—and hacked them to death with their machetes.

As Aristide predicted, the violence grew and spread. The Duvalierists, barred from the election by the electoral council and the constitution, were determined to scuttle the vote. The army, at loggerheads with the defiantly independent council and doubtless suspecting that the candidate of the popular groups might well win a free vote—for they alone among the candidates commanded a nationwide political network, built on the tilegliz—made an exaggerated show of “non-interference” and left the council members, and the electoral process itself, without protection. American officials made hopeful and reassuring comments and (in what now seems a striking prefiguring of the self-deluded bumbling this past summer, while the Governors Island Accord was slowly collapsing under a relentless campaign of street violence) tried to persuade themselves and anyone willing to listen that “the process was on track.”

On election day, November 29, several dozen armed civilians stormed a polling place on a pleasant street in downtown Port-au-Prince and hacked and shot to death seventeen people who had been waiting in line to vote. Armed men cruised the streets of the capital, shooting anyone they found on the streets. Around the country, several score more Haitians were murdered. That afternoon, General Namphy, bull-necked, moon-faced, scowling, appeared on national television to announce in his gruff voice that the vote had been canceled. The Americans, mortified and angry, cut off their aid. The elections, as Aristide writes, had been “won by the Macoutes.”


After the debacle, the now isolated regime staged what Haitians call une élection bidon—a “tin-can election,” or blatant fraud—and President Henri Namphy gave way to President Leslie F. Manigat, a well-known political science professor who was thought to have developed during his quarter-century in exile important enough connections in Washington and Paris and Caracas to stand a chance of persuading the Americans to restore their foreign aid—or so the officers hoped.

Voluble, irrepressible, and almost hysterically energetic, the professor lacked both democratic legitimacy and real power, and had no reasonable prospect of attaining either. Despite his connections, his efforts at diplomacy left the weary Americans unmoved, and so, with no foreign aid forthcoming, at the end of June 1988 Leslie Manigat gave way, by means of a rather protracted coup d’état, to none other than General Namphy himself.

“Namphy deux”—as the summer interregnum that followed came to be known—proved exceptionally bloody and increasingly decadent. Haiti was cut off, isolated; the official political process that had begun, however grudgingly, after the fall of Duvalier had reached an impasse. Resentful and bitter, the general began to drink heavily and came increasingly to rely, for the maintenance of his power, on his old Duvalierist cronies, first among whom was the mayor of Port-au-Prince and a former close associate of Papa Doc named Franck Romain. Romain had acquired his ideas about dealing with political dissent directly from the master.

On September 10, Father Aristide learned “from someone at City Hall, where the massacre was being planned,” that “men wearing red armbands would attack” St. Jean Bosco the next morning, during mass. It was not a surprise: as the main surviving center of dissent in the capital, the church had been under steadily mounting pressure. During mass, a hail of stones would clatter against the nave; the worshipers would be stoned and threatened on leaving the church. The week before, parishioners had recovered a gun from a would-be assassin who was waiting to receive communion from Father Aristide. “It was not necessary to be a great scholar to gauge the situation,” Aristide says. “We were experiencing a crescendo of attacks.”

And yet what is fascinating about Aristide’s account of these events is the attitude of almost willful acceptance, or resignation, with which he finally goes to join his parishioners to await the coming attack. The night before, Aristide met with the other officers of the church and they decided to conduct the early mass as usual and then assess the situation. When fewer people than usual appeared at six, it was decided it would be prudent to cancel the later mass. But then the people suddenly began pouring in—hundreds and hundreds of them—and one of Aristide’s young followers called him in his room:

“You have to come down. It is a quarter to nine and a lot of people are arriving. They want to have a celebration, just like every other Sunday, at all costs.”

“But that is not what we planned yesterday, or even this morning!”

“The people won’t hear of it. For them, it is Sunday, and they want to pray…Even if the Macoutes intervene, they want to have their celebration.”

“The people won’t hear of it”: Aristide’s lessons have taken firm root. They have become “subjects,” and will not relent, even before their leader’s concerns. “Frankly,” says Aristide, “I was hesitant. How far may the pastor expose his own flock to danger, even if persistence is part of our non-violent response?” This is the heart of the matter, the paradox that lies at the center of Aristide’s “active non-violence”: what to do when such “persistence” means that many people will certainly die. This question, and the answer he gave through the action he took, account for the odd mix of elation, guilt, and self-exculpation that permeates his accounts of what happened at St. Jean Bosco on September 11, 1988.

When the people insisted on having the service, Aristide says that, against his better judgment, “I could only follow them.” And later: “The most radical elements of the Ti legliz had neither pushed nor encouraged the people to come…. The people of the neighborhood and a few others came spontaneously, courageously.” Again, he is passive; and yet in his retelling, his very passivity has acquired a luminous, almost mystical cast. In his autobiography, Aristide calls his account of the attack on his church “The Calvary of St. Jean Bosco.” He does not intend it figuratively; in an earlier account he plays out the parallel to the hilt:

I thought to myself, every other time, I have been there to suffer with my people; this time, perhaps the worst time, I must be there also.

So I said: I will come to the place called Calvary. If this was to be my last day, as it seemed, then I would carry my cross, and the struggle for light and life would continue because God is life. So I got dressed up in my room, and came downstairs and two friends came to meet me, a girl and a boy. They accompanied me, and in their voices, in their faces, in every inch of them, I could feel fear, a shiver of tension. And I said to them: This is our Calvary, like Jesus who ascended the Cross.

In face of the coming onslaught, no one—not Aristide, not his parishioners, not the Macoutes themselves—has a choice: “What seems like choice is not choice; it is the hand of Providence writing out the book of your life for you. And so I went into the church, and up to the blessed altar.”

Just after the reading of the Gospel—from Matthew: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”—a hail of stones hammered against the nave. Through the grated windows, worshipers could make out men smashing the windshields of the cars outside. As the people began to shift about nervously, Aristide’s young assistants called for calm, and began to lead the congregation in song, urging them to raise their arms in triumph. That is how they stood when the doors burst open and two dozen howling men stormed in, brandishing machetes, clubs, and knives and spraying the crowd with gunfire. The packed church was engulfed in shrieking, deafening chaos. In panic the people fled from the rear doors, crushing themselves into a churning mass near the altar as the attackers waded forward among the bodies, slashing about them with their machetes and knives.

Screaming people clogged the doorways, trampling one another. “I saw a pregnant woman screaming for help in the pews, and holding on to her stomach,” writes Aristide. “A man had just speared her there, and she was bathed in red blood.” A band of followers had instantly formed a circle around Father Aristide and managed to hustle him through the sacristy door.

The bloody bedlam endured for perhaps five minutes; by this time more than seventy people had been wounded and at least fourteen had been killed. Behind the walls of the compound men waited to stone or club those trying to escape. The attackers now set about pouring gasoline over the bloody pews and then torched the building. Only after St. Jean Bosco had been gutted, and the roof had collapsed in a great crackling groan, did the fire truck arrive. Down the street where the military had a base, the soldiers stood and watched.

After a siege of several hours Father Aristide finally managed to escape the compound; he was driven to a hiding place in the care of his order. There he wept for his congregants. He spent days paralyzed by a deep depression—even as, on the outside, the government that had tried to murder him collapsed in a comic-opera coup d’etat. Rumors flew that Father Aristide had been kidnapped; that the church had imprisoned him; that he was being drugged. When he finally appeared in public, briefly but silently, he seemed wan and frail; many were convinced he had been drugged.11 He had no church, and by year’s end, his Salesian order would expel him for, among other offenses, “inciting hatred and violence and exalting class struggle.”

But his congregation had not abandoned him. They were waiting for Father Aristide in the bidonvilles of the capital. Before long he would rise up to give a famous speech, a speech in which he would christen his followers, give a name to those who had waited for him—and to those who, in Haiti today, gaze out at the circle of warships on the horizon and wait for him still. Aristide called them lavalas—the flood:

Alone, we are weak
Together, we are strong.
Together, we are the flood.

The flood of poor peasants and poor soldiers,
The flood of the poor jobless multitudes…
The flood of all our poor friends…

Let the flood descend!
October 21, 1993

This is the second part of a three-part article.

This Issue

November 18, 1993