Late on a breezy afternoon, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of the Republic of Haiti, descended from his limousine on Capitol Hill and, accompanied by his entourage of Haitian aides and American lawyers, made his way slowly into the Capitol to meeting room S-116, where a group of senators and staff assistants awaited him. They were from the foreign relations committee and they were there to discuss strategy.
It was October 20, ten days before President Aristide had been scheduled to return to the National Palace in Port-au-Prince and reassume the office from which the Haitian military had expelled him more than two years before. But the agreement—the so-called Governors Island Accord, signed in New York on July 3—was unraveling: nine days earlier, on October 11, the troopship USS Harlan County, carrying more than 200 American “combat engineers and technical advisers” who were to train and “professionalize” the Haitian military, had been greeted at Port-au-Prince harbor by scores of angry civilians shouting nationalist slogans and brandishing automatic weapons. After a day of limbo, during which the Haitian army made no move to restore order, the Clinton administration recalled the ship from Haitian waters.1
Two days later, on October 13, the United Nations Security Council voted to reimpose sanctions on the de facto military regime in Port-au-Prince and, two days after that, President Clinton sent a half dozen American warships to enforce what was, in effect, a blockade on Haiti. By Wednesday afternoon, even as President Aristide sat in the meeting room on the first floor of the Capitol, sipping coffee and urging the senators to “support his return to Haiti”2 by keeping up the pressure on the officers in Port-au-Prince, an iron band of foreign warships had encircled his tiny country and begun, inexorably, to squeeze.
That October 20, even as President Aristide was discussing Haiti with the senators in room S-116, three floors up, in room S-407, another group of senators was discussing Aristide. Or rather, they were listening as one Brian Latell, a thirty-year veteran of the CIA and the agency’s national intelligence officer for Latin America, presented the intelligence community’s “psychological profile” of the forty-year-old Haitian president. Though the briefing was held under conditions meant to ensure the utmost secrecy—room S-407 is one of the Capitol’s “secure rooms,” designed with elaborate “counter-measures” to prevent eavesdropping—a number of its participants made sure that, within twenty-four hours, much of what the intelligence analyst had said had become front-page news.
Senator Jesse Helms, who had requested the briefing from the Senate floor earlier on Wednesday—during a speech in which, among other things, he had denounced President Aristide as a “psychopath”—took to the floor again on Thursday and, having offered assurances that the technical sophistication of room S-407 ensured that “nobody can bug it; nobody outside the room can know what was said,” proceeded to alert his fellow senators and the world at large that “the CIA yesterday confirmed every jot and tittle of what I said…about Aristide.”
The CIA confirmed the perilous situation involving Aristide and the necklacing that Mr. Aristide has practiced, but which he denied yesterday afternoon [in the meeting in S-116, which Helms mocked as a “love-in”]….
Aristide is a killer. He is a demonstrable killer. And I do not want the life of one soldier or sailor from the United States of America to die in the interest of that man.
“He is a psychopath.” The news media say, “Good God; did Helms say that?” You bet Helms said it, and so did the CIA….
This cruel man has made fiery speeches exhorting his followers to use the necklace method, as it is called, to destroy his political enemies in agony.
This is not hearsay; it is a demonstrable fact. The President of the United States has known it, and the Secretary of State of the United States has known it. But not until yesterday, when the Senator from North Carolina began talking about this and we got the CIA up on the fourth floor of the Capitol, was it confirmed.3
By Friday bits and pieces of the “secret” briefing had been strewn liberally throughout the news media. Wolf Blitzer of Cable News Network, quoting unspecified “sources,” reported that “the CIA cited evidence…that Aristide suffers from severe mood swings and depression that have required him to take such medication as Lithium and Haldol.” Later that day, Judy Woodruff announced that “CNN has learned” that the CIA’s “psychological profile strongly suggest[ed] that Jean-Bertrand Aristide may be mentally disturbed.”
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Latell had described “Aristide’s 1980 visit to a psychiatric hospital in Canada.” Two days later, the Post expanded that to “hospital and pharmaceutical records suggesting that Aristide had been treated for manic depression….” A columnist in the Post would later inform readers that Aristide “has used thirteen kinds of medication.” Also prominent in the CIA’s assessment, according to the Post, were “allegations that while serving as a priest in Haiti, Aristide organized a ruthless gang of supporters who routinely used violence.” And, Latell predicted, according to one account, that if Aristide is restored to power, “he will rule with violence.”4
By the weekend, prominent officials from the Bush administration were making their views known. Richard Cheney, the former secretary of defense, declared to a television interviewer that “there are very serious questions about [Aristide’s] mental stability, about his conduct in office,…” and went on to assure viewers the following week that “there’s little doubt about the validity of what the CIA produced.” General Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser, told one interviewer that the “real important points about [Aristide] are that his behavior can be erratic,” while, to another, he echoed Senator Helms in judging Aristide to be “probably a certifiable psychopath.”5
The appearances of the Bush officials were no accident, for one thing virtually all of the charges had in common was that they had been made public two years before, in the days and weeks after Aristide had been overthrown on September 30, 1991. Many of them were at least partly based on information systematically provided by the same Haitian officers who had overthrown him. That Aristide suffered from depression had been common knowledge in Haiti for years, but only after the coup, when Haitian officers reportedly presented to American diplomats several bottles of prescription drugs that they claimed to have found in the president’s bedroom, did Aristide’s psychological “condition” become a matter of political controversy.6
Now, two years after the coup d’état, the images of “Aristide the psychopath” and “Aristide the killer” had been conjured up once again. Clinton administration officials, confronted with this attack on the central figure in their policy toward Haiti, responded rather sheepishly. “In our dealings with President Aristide,” said a White House spokeswoman, “he has been rational and responsible. He…has lived up to the commitments that he has made…and so it is our judgment, based on our experience with him, that he is fully qualified to serve as the President of Haiti.” President Clinton himself, chatting with reporters after his morning jog, told them that his opinion that Aristide was fit to lead Haiti had been bolstered by “everyone else in the Administration in working with him.”7
It fell somewhat short of a ringing endorsement, for conspicuously absent from these defenses was any disavowal of charges the CIA analyst had made. Indeed, on the day after the briefing, Clinton’s director of central intelligence, R. James Woolsey, had told members of the House and Senate intelligence committees that he “fully supported what Latell had said.”8 It was left to Aristide himself to dispute Latell’s account. This he did in a series of interviews in which he denied, among other things, that he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital, that he had taken the drugs named, or that he had even been in Canada in 1980. Finally, he attempted, in his limited English, to make light of the CIA assessment:
I smile. I could even laugh because it’s all that garbage. I respect those who say that, but I reject what they say because it’s garbage. Secondly, they said worst about Martin Luther King. Thirdly, as a psychologist, I know what about character assassination. As a psychologist I know what about psychological war. Fourth, people could read my books, particularly three of them to find out what they want to know. I mean, myself.9
But even if Americans took the time to read his books they would find no answers. His autobiography, written after the first surge of accusations in 1991, said nothing about depression or treatment, nothing about the specific claims that he had incited violence—nothing to dispute what the CIA had said. To the reader, Aristide offered only his own vision—as he had to the Haitians who had followed him and worshiped him, and who, as they wait behind the American blockade, follow him still. For Haitians believed, even if Americans didn’t, that all of it—not only the election triumph, but the deep depressions and the blood-curdling calls to arms—all of it formed part of one narrative, irreducible and perfect: the gospel of the Leader.
The true birth of Aristide’s political career—his metamorphosis from priest to politician—had been consecrated in blood, in the great eruption of violence and terror on September 11, 1988, that came to be known as the massacre at St. Jean Bosco. Aristide refers to this event as “the Calvary of St. Jean Bosco,” although he managed, once again, to escape death. The priest was spirited away from his burning church, which he had made a center of dissent against the brutal rule of those who had inherited power from Duvalier. Hidden and isolated by his order, he fell into a paralyzing depression—a not altogether inappropriate response, it should be said, to seeing scores of his helpless parishioners hacked apart with machetes before his eyes.
That Aristide was subject to depression, that he sometimes suffered from “nervous crises” or “nervous prostrations,” had by then become common knowledge among his followers. It did not lessen their devotion; on the contrary. Not only had eccentric and erratic behavior been closer to the rule than the exception among Haiti’s leaders (with the withering rages and raspy-voiced harangues of Papa Doc only the most recent and vivid example), but a central part of Father Aristide’s appeal was his very frailty: he was a tiny man, had little more flesh than his emaciated followers. And yet, there he stood on the pulpit, his arms extended like Christ himself, his voice—great and unflagging, as if powered by an unseen presence—echoing defiance to every corner of the nave. His very weakness made him one with his parishioners; his strength, which seemed an otherworldly gift, convinced them that they too could be strong.
After the president was overthrown in September 1991, seven months after he had taken office, a young woman who numbered herself among his followers told me that Aristide “was like our child, our infant. And we took care of that infant and we bathed and fed him and cherished him. And now, now the soldiers have taken our baby away from us.” For Haitians, his depressions evince not only his frailty but the reality of his inspiration. In her portrait of Aristide, published in 1989, Amy Wilentz quotes this account of one of his “crises,” attributed to an unnamed Haitian journalist who interviewed the priest after “some commotion at the church, an assassination attempt or something”:
He stops eating…ends up looking like a skeleton. He’s lying in his bed in his little room, looking like he’s already dead,…and all these church people are running around, taking care of him. They fan him, they try to convince him to take aspirin and Valium, they put cold compresses on his fevered brow…and they whisper warm words of comfort to him. Half of it is drama, but half of it or more is real. His cheeks sink in, and you can see his ribs against his shirt. And then the next day he’s giving a sermon. A brilliant sermon. The breakdown makes his people love him more…. His frailty isn’t perceived as a weakness…. In a way, these crises are perceived as a kind of solidarity with the poor. He’s starving himself, and they’re starving….
Not only solidarity, however: the people understand that the Prophet bears great weight upon his shoulders, that he suffers the contempt not only of the regime but of his own bishops, and that he suffers it for them:
He’s a priest working for a church that basically hates him. He’s living inside a family that won’t tolerate him. They’re always trying to get rid of him. He’s like an abused child, and he exhibits the kinds of psychological reactions those children have. It’s not an easy life, and it could make a man have breakdowns. So he does.10
Now with his church in a smoking ruin, his superiors wasted no time in trying once again “to get rid of” Aristide. On the night of September 11, 1988, after he had escaped the carnage at St. Jean Bosco, he was received by “the men of the Church,” as he calls them: the papal “nuncio, magnificent in his cassock, wearing a compassionate smile and assuring me of his full sympathy.” As Aristide knew, the nuncio had watched the dénouement of the drama from beyond the church gates that afternoon. “At first, I swear, I hesitated to receive his embrace. Finally, I thought that in the most tragic moments one ought to respond with love, even if I thought him an accomplice.” These are harsh words; throughout his writings Aristide reserves his bitterest attacks for his Church superiors. Of the nuncio he says that “neither he nor the bishops had the courage to cry out when the wolves were devouring the sheep before their eyes. The opposite of courage is called cowardice.”
The bishops, not to speak of the nuncio, did not see things this way. To them, Aristide, by relentlessly attacking a murderous and reckless regime, had placed himself and his defenseless parishioners far out on a limb, and was attempting to pull the entire Church out there with him. Why was he shocked when the regime sawed the limb off? Aristide saw the churchmen as cowardly, corrupted by their timidity and greed; they saw him as arrogant, reckless, and, most maddeningly perhaps, so overwhelmingly self-righteous that he could shield his own ambitions with a literal interpretation of the Gospel whose implications they could not abide.
The day after “that bloody Sunday,” the Salesian superior arrived in Port-au-Prince and met with the traumatized priest. “Listen,” Aristide quotes him as saying, “we have asked you often enough these past three years not to get mixed up in politics, and to stick to your mission as a priest. Now you see the result: our church burned, our house ransacked. Have you considered how much physical damage you have brought on our community?”
At this Aristide explodes:
Thirteen people had died in the fire or from gunshots, and that was his first thought! However much love I have for my neighbor, I received this language, coming from a Christian whose mission was to be more Christian than others, as a slap in the face. For want of love, I managed to keep my composure.
The superior proposed, once again, that Aristide leave Haiti—for Canada, for Rome: “the same refrain.” Aristide asked for time to reflect; by his own account, his considerations were frankly political:
Once I had left, the enemies of the community would surely proceed to make it pay dearly for the spirit of resistance within it. But worse, they would say: “Look, you others, some are dead, others are wounded or in flight, you are suffering, you are persecuted—and the man who got you so worked up is taking it easy outside the country. He has abandoned you!”
He was isolated now, invisible to his followers except for one brief and silent public appearance. But outside, the events he set in motion had their consequences. On September 17, 1988, a group of noncommissioned officers and soldiers in the presidential guard—the ti soldats, or “little soldiers,” most of them uneducated young peasants—banded together. Disgusted by the attack on the church, and by the arrogance of the killers—several of whom brazenly appeared in television interviews the night of the massacre offering macabre “post-game” accounts of how they did it and vowing to “get” Aristide “next time”—the ti soldats launched a half-organized and rather comic coup d’état. They arrested General Namphy, placed him and his family in an armored car, and sent them to the airport, whence they were flown on to Santo Domingo (where they would occupy the same rooms that President Leslie Manigat had taken when Namphy overthrew him scarcely two and a half months before).
At the Palace, meantime, the ti soldats deliberated. Power was floating in the air, ready to be seized. The presidency was theirs to bestow. They offered it to one of their number, a young sergeant who enjoyed the considerable distinction of having attended high school. The young man, taken aback, burst into tears. They deliberated further. Finally, they were interrupted by the arrival of General Prosper Avril, a celebrated figure who had been a favorite of Papa Doc—“L’intelligent Avril,” the old man is reputed to have christened him—and later served as a close aide to his son. Avril was rich, worldly, well-traveled, and a practiced Palace politician; soon, he was helpfully agreeing to wield power with the young sergeant.
But a process had begun that even General Avril proved powerless to stop. During the days and weeks after the coup, as the people celebrated the fall of Namphy—a celebration which included more than one exercise in “popular justice,” including the killing and immolation of several of the St. Jean Bosco killers before the ruins of the church—the command structure of the Armed Forces of Haiti began to splinter and collapse. Triumphant young soldiers arrested their hated commanders and crowds gathered before the Quartier General to laugh and cheer as the ti soldats deposited their captives—many of them handcuffed, some stripped to their underwear—like so many sacks of dirty laundry.
Among the powerful and the rich, meanwhile, fear had begun to spread. The army was fragmenting! If at any time since the fall of Duvalier Haiti had come close to Father Aristide’s cherished “unarmed revolution,” surely it was now.
Father Aristide, in seclusion, noticed a change in attitude. Before the coup, he writes, his superiors “desired my departure so strongly that I had no illusions. With the coup d’état, the course changed 180 degrees. They asked me to remain…”
I was an embarrassment: get out! You can protect us from a new situation: stay here! Quite aware of popular reaction, the bishops, having calculated very well, preferred that I should remain.
But Aristide was not so easily used. Two weeks after the coup, he came out of seclusion to make a famous speech over Radio Soleil. He began by addressing the members of his order in a voice laced with sarcasm:
The messages that usually come from Rome ask for my departure.
The most recent one, however, has accorded me the right to remain here among you.
For how long?
He then moved on to St. Jean Bosco, saluting its victims, and drawing the connection—in case anyone had missed it—between the massacre and the nascent revolution:
Because Jesus loved the poor, he sacrificed his life for them.
Because the victims of the massacre at St. Jean Bosco were bathed in love, they fell like Jesus for the deliverance of our nation.
But now comes the main section of the speech, an open appeal to the ti soldats:
At Mass on Good Friday of last year, I washed the feet of a soldier to remind us that the role of a military man is to bow down before the people, to wash the feet of the people, and not to wash his own feet in the blood of the people.
But today, I am more disposed to kiss the feet of all the valiant and patriotic soldiers who have chosen to remain in the people’s camp, who have chosen to continue the clean-up operation until we overthrow the table of privilege and corruption where the elite are feasting.
The time is now, the chance to “overthrow the table” was not to be missed; for already the forces of reaction were gathering:
The US government, along with its lackeys among the Haitian elite, has already begun to conspire to infiltrate Macoutes into the Army, to buy off soldiers, to sow corruption….
The Army’s rank-and-file and the Haitian people must tie themselves together in a great and solid chain….
A solid organization among the Palace guards, the guards of the Dessalines Barracks, the guards of the General Headquarters, and the guards of the Leopard Unit must grow like the horns of an angry bull…
If the Duvalierist officers and the two or three Macoutes who have been forcibly removed and all the others who ought to be removed—if they are not brought before the people’s court, we may well say that we have been April Fools.11
It was an open call to rebellion. But Aristide’s timing proved faulty. Already General Avril had begun to rein in his little soldiers; soon he would stage an adroitly managed counter-coup and throw most of the more militant ones in jail.
Aristide had delivered a full-throated call to arms, one that the officers and the elite have not forgotten. Using all his oratorical powers, he had put himself forward as leader of the Jacobins. Unfortunately for him, Thermidor had already arrived.
Two weeks before Christmas 1988, after a period of controversy and public demonstrations—the largest of which succeeded in paralyzing the capital, preventing Aristide from following the Salesians’ directive that he leave the country—the order came down from Rome: for his “lack of sincerity and of a religious and priestly consciousness,” for his “profanation of the liturgy,” his “destabilization of the community of the faithful,” his “incitement to hatred and violence and glorifying of class struggle”—for all these reasons and more, the Salesians had cast him out.12
It was hardly a surprise. Several weeks before, he had delivered a powerful radio message in which he had denounced not only General Avril but the Papal nuncio and the bulk of the Haitian hierarchy:
You who have plotted against me,
You who have plotted against the Haitian people:
Bishop Paolo Romeo, Bishop Gayot, Bishop Ligondé, Bishop Kébreau and the rest,
Let me look you in the eye,
Please don’t be ashamed….
I have come to tell you: I love you, too….
The church is rich, thanks to us, the poor,
Who have agreed to be part of one sole body….
Alone, we are weak.
Together, together we are strong.
Together, we are the flood.
A Creole word rich in connotations, Lavalas evokes not only “flood,” as it is usually translated, but its near cognate, “avalanche”; for poor Haitians the word evokes the image of the sweeping rains that spawn the torrents that course through the enormous slums, flooding the tin-and-scrapwood hovels and sweeping away the garbage and the filth that clog the pathways. To the images of “uprooting,” of “pulling up the manioc,” of “the clean-up operation”—to all these homely tropes of Haiti’s popular movement Aristide now added Lavalas, an image that transformed the poor millions of Haiti into a surging wave that could not be forestalled, a revolution that was unstoppable and inevitable:
Let the flood descend, the flood of
Poor peasants and poor soldiers, the flood of the poor jobless multitudes…
But the flood did not descend, not right away, and Aristide, expelled from his order, was left to enter the wilderness. During the late summer of 1989 I visited him at Lafanmi Selavi, his home for street children in a pleasant upper-class neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, watched as he conducted a Spanish class—repeating the verb tenses, writing them on the black-board, encouraging with infinite patience the members of the class, who ranged from seven-year-old foundlings, their heads shaved to prevent lice, to sixty-year-old retirees—and then looked on as he quietly discussed political strategy with a group of young radio reporters.
When we spoke, however, I was startled by his bitterness. He railed against the Haitian Church; denounced the bishops by name; spoke angrily of Obando y Bravo, the conservative archbishop of Managua. In answer to my question about the depredations of General Avril—who, after almost a year atop his military regime, showed no signs of yielding power—Aristide showed a defiant and angry faith. “It is good,” he said, “it is good that this man is cruel and greedy and brutal, for the more the mask falls, the more this Macoute regime lets show its evil face, the sooner the people will rise up and sweep it away.”13
By then, Avril had narrowly survived one coup and was struggling to forestall a second by spreading broadly among his officers the fruits of corruption that could still be extracted from the country’s handful of state-owned enterprises. He struggled also to induce the Americans to restore their aid and, by promising elections and making use of a considerable ability to project (at least to American officials) an aura of “competence” and “pragmatism,” he managed to attract a trickle of money. But he could find no way out of the political impasse. When the unions and mass organizations called strikes that fall, General Avril cracked down, displaying the battered faces of several popular young leaders on national television. In January 1990, when competition among various of his officers had grown intense and murderous, he cracked down again, and made the mistake of attacking not only the popular leaders but several of les candidats, the leaders of the more traditional political parties, some of whom had made use of their years of exile to build strong contacts abroad.
In the face of international protests, the general backed down. By March 1990 he was finished, swept from power by a campaign of protests that, like those of the summer of 1987, were a product of collaboration between the popular leaders and les candidats. The final push was applied by the new American envoy, an unusually able diplomat named Alvin Adams, Jr.,14 who visited the general’s villa in the hills above the capital for a pre-dawn heart-to-heart and persuaded Avril, with the help of—so the legend has it—the example of Richard Nixon during Watergate, that the time had come for the general to move on.
During those final days, leaders on the far left had openly called for Aristide’s appointment as “provisional president.” For his part, Aristide called for an “anti-Macoute civilian government.” In March 1990, power passed to a rather jerry-built civilian regime in which Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, a little-known Supreme Court judge with mildly Duvalierist connections, presided as provisional president, advised by a quasi-legislative “Council of State” made up of leaders from the unions, the private sector, and other parts of “civil society.” Though Trouillot promised early elections, Father Aristide was adamant: “Justice against the Macoute criminals must happen before elections,” he said. The provisional government must “take up its responsibilities,…[for] the authorities have sufficient resources in hand to make judicial proceedings.” Three months after the provisional regime had come to power, when soldiers launched a murderous attack on a meeting of the Council of State in which two people were killed, Aristide offered some public advice to the American ambassador, among others, advising him to.
speak of elections after justice, please. Let’s begin together by disarming the Macoutes. When you speak to us of elections while there is a question of justice, keep in mind that you are implicated, keep in mind that you deserve to be treated as a criminal when right in front of you these armed bandits are spitting death.
This was the paradox that has haunted Haiti’s politics since the fall of Duvalier: how to manage a peaceful transition of power. If “the structures of corruption” remained firmly in place, as Aristide believed, how was it possible to hold a truly free election? And yet, if not by elections, how could those “structures” be removed?
Aristide’s answer, in 1990 as in 1985, was definitive: only “a popular mobilization against the criminal Macoutes” could cleanse the country of Duvalierist corruption. Haitians still cried out, he said, for “a revolution that will change Haiti for once and for all,” as he had put it the summer before. An election, even a fair one, would inevitably leave the old order firmly in place.
Like so many of his prophesies, this one would be fully realized. Indeed, he would prove it right himself, the following fall and winter, when the revolutionary stepped forward before the nation and revealed himself to be a democrat after all.
In announcing he would enter as a candidate in the “official” electoral contest, as he finally did on October 18, 1990, less than two months before the vote, Jean-Bertrand Aristide contradicted much of what he had said and stood for during his five-year public life. If his followers couldn’t have cared less about this—they were wildly enthusiastic, for they saw their hero at long last moving to take the power he deserved—then Father Aristide certainly did: his ambivalence about the decision lends an air of defensiveness and self-justification to his account that makes it (together with the story of his decision to go ahead with the mass that became the St. Jean Bosco massacre) much the most interesting passage of his autobiography.
“We”—the popular movement—“were in danger of falling into a trap,” Aristide writes:
The executive, no doubt egged on by imperialism, was trying to keep the people at a distance from the electoral scene. By moving toward a boycott or toward more radical measures, we would cede the ground to others, to some Manigat who would be more easily elected and more solidly entrenched in power.
Of course, this had always been the obvious contradiction inherent in the boycott strategy: if the popular movement refused to take part and the elections went ahead, anyway the result would have excluded that movement. What was different now, and what Aristide acknowledges in several particularly tortuous passages, was the foreign sponsorship of the elections:
The fact was that international opinion demanded these elections, and in any event Ertha [Pascal-Trouillot] was not Namphy. Letting the Macoutes roam around and be active was not necessarily putting them in the saddle, but it put pressure on the people to abstain from voting and to allow the bourgeoisie alone to choose among acceptable candidates.
In other words, the provisional government had not moved to arrest “the armed bandits spitting death” and render “justice” to them, because, according to Aristide, it hoped the groups and parties on the left would boycott the vote if the killers were allowed to run free. And yet, weeks before Aristide declared his candidacy, many of these groups had already announced that they would take part; indeed, though he contends (in only one of the contradictions in his account) that “the multiplication of opposition parties and candidates left scarcely any chance for the left,” barely two weeks before Aristide’s announcement, the National Front for Change and Democracy, or FNCD, an umbrella group of the left, had put forward as its candidate for president the school-teacher and intellectual Victor Benoît—a man who, it is true, commanded nowhere near the popularity of Aristide but who, given the nationwide organizations grouped under the FNCD, might well have won. Had Aristide agreed to campaign for him, he probably could not have lost. In the event, Aristide displaced him when he decided to run under the FNCD’s banner.
Why did he run? Why, after denouncing, as recently as June, the “presidentialism, this incurable sickness” of Haitian politicians; after declaring, as recently as September that “American imperialism” would make impossible fair elections under “the werewolf,” President Pascal-Trouillot—why, after all this, did he decide in October to throw his hat into the ring?
One answer is that he realized the elections would be observed by representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States—an “interference” in the country’s affairs that had elicited vivid denunciations of “imperialism” from Haitian politicians:
In October, I had had a presentiment of the importance of international opinion. Hundreds of observers, whose probity could not be called into question, would be present. This time, the person elected could boast of a legitimacy almost beyond discussion. Alas for those who were absent!
Without the hundreds of foreign observers, and the active involvement of the United States, Canada, France, and Venezuela that made those observers possible, Aristide could not have won an election in Haiti; for though his popular following was overwhelming, the traditional Haitian political class would never have let him win—they would have blocked him, either by scuttling the vote, as in 1987, or by ballot tampering or, most likely, by somehow preventing him running in the first place. “In Haiti,” as a Haitian diplomat and former Duvalier minister had told me, “the power in place always has a say in who will take power.” But not this time; it is only one of the ironies of Aristide’s career that his decision to run, and his spectacular victory, were made possible by the very “imperialism” he had denounced so eloquently for so many years.
What is most interesting about Aristide’s account is the difficulty he had, and clearly still has, in explaining his own motives. This reluctance bespeaks an ambivalence about official power and the apparatus of politics that goes with it, an ambivalence that he brought with him—disastrously, as it turned out—when he was elected to the highest office. He understands the demand for power as a direct contradiction of the purity of his motives. His expulsion by the Salesian order, he says, “had not changed my Christian conscience, blunted my fidelity to the dispossessed…”
Some people expected that I would join a political party…or, better still, that I would start my own. That would only have given credibility to the accusation uttered here and there about my immoderate taste for power, a power that, according to others, I wanted to acquire at any price.
These “others” assume this of him because it is almost always true of any Haitian with the least shred of popularity, whatever the source. Politics drench Haitian society, as Leslie Manigat, a much better political scientist than he was a president, once explained.
Everything is political and may become involved in the struggle for power. All efforts to keep certain sectors of public life out of politics have failed. Thus, perhaps nowhere else in the world are physicians and lawyers more engaged in active politics. The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump…. Politics extends its tentacles even into private life. Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him….15
The elite and the army took political ambition for granted; what they could not abide was Aristide’s professions of disinterestedness, for they regarded this as the rankest hypocrisy, and it made them fear him as unpredictable and reckless.
Father Aristide is certainly a much more complicated man than portrayed in his enemies’ caricatures of him. His dark view of the reality of Haitian politics, of the sectarianism and unfettered ambition that have poisoned the country’s leaders for nearly two centuries, is difficult to contest; and if his own version of his decisions reveals a grave conflict between what he knew about the corruptions of power and what in the end he was willing to do to get it, it is because there is a conflict. “Presidentialism is a sickness that ‘political’ doctors can easily find in Haiti,” he writes:
The diagnosis is easy, but the remedy is less sure. Our history is full of that epidemic, the principal symptom of which is a ravenous desire on the part of the patient.
The presidency of Haiti always means power, honor, and money, precisely the reverse of what we were trying to achieve: to be of service to others, and especially to those who are most destitute.
In the end, he says he has no choice. He is, after all, merely the instrument of the people, their servant:
“Titid ak pèp la se marasa” [“Titid and the people are married”]. If I were to refuse, they would regard it as a betrayal, as they would have done had I obeyed the orders for my exile in 1987 and 1988, or deferred the Mass at St. Jean Bosco, however gruesome it turned out to be. My candidacy was part of their reflexive self-defense…. [my emphasis]
As he says in a discussion with a fellow priest, “We had served the people together: would we not be betraying them by letting them climb the last steps toward demoocracy alone? Was political responsibility the extension of the prophetic role of our communities?”—a comment that offers a clue to the depth of his disagreement with the organized Church, from the Pope on down.
Unfortunately Haiti’s politics and its machinery of government had nothing whatever to do with “service to others” or helping “those who are most destitute.” Despite the coups d’état and revolutions and the entire colorful epic of political struggle that is the country’s history, the underlying reality of Haiti has remained remarkably constant for nearly two centuries: the machinery of power, no matter who controls it, exists to funnel the resources of the country from the many to the few—and it is the pastime of those few to fight over who will control the funnel. Though he could not admit it even to himself, in entering the race for president Aristide had declared his intention to join the ranks of those fighting for that funnel; but as the traditional players well knew, he had in mind, once he had won it, to do something very different with it.
On October 18, 1990, Aristide submitted himself to “the will of the people,” as he put it, and his entry into the race brought an enormous surge in voter registration. Around the country he drew huge crowds, and though the “Macoute sector” spoke darkly of apocalyptic violence, only one serious incident marred the campaign (a grenade attack after an Aristide rally in Petionville that killed five people). The presence of the hundreds of international observers and the determination of the principal embassies in Port-au-Prince helped to insure that the massacre of 1987 was not repeated. So did the work of a Haitian army officer charged with arranging security for the vote, a rather quiet, almost academic-seeming, colonel from a well-connected family named Raoul Cédras. Perhaps as important as any of these factors was a widespread disbelief among the Haitian elite and the officer corps of the Haitian army that the United States would ever let someone like Aristide actually take power.
But times had changed. Events in Moscow that summer had made Castro a much less threatening figure for the makers of American policy. Stability was gradually supplanting anticommunism as the central American concern in the Caribbean. And so, on December 16, in an almost carnival atmosphere of jubilation, Haitians cast their ballots in an election that, apart from considerable problems in getting ballots to the polling places, went forward without challenge or incident. The following morning, reporters listening to a briefing by a United Nations official began, one by one, to cock their heads toward the window, from which an indescribable humming, an emanation of white noise not unlike that of the seacoast heard from a distance, had gradually become audible. News of the preliminary vote count had come over the radio. What we heard was the sound of hundreds of thousands of Haitians screaming all at once in their joy. They poured into the streets, dancing, singing, swigging rum; every car horn in Port-au-Prince, it seemed, was honking at once. The celebration went on all day and late into the night.
Aristide had won 67.5 percent of the vote; his closest challenger was Marc Bazin, a former World Bank official with good contacts at the US embassy, with just over 14 percent. The figures were a shock—to the embassy, where many diplomats expected no candidate would gain a majority in the first round; to the well-to-do; and to the officer corps. But the hopes of both the officers and many among the elite were dashed when the American ambassador and the assistant secretary of state offered statements almost immediately recognizing the legitimacy of Aristide’s victory.
The reaction was not long in coming. On January 2, François-Wolff Ligondé, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince and Father Aristide’s old antagonist, stood in the Cathedral and delivered an extraordinary sermon in which he declared that “fear is sending a chill down the spines of many fathers and mothers.” Denouncing “opportunists ready to swallow up everything” the archbishop brandished the specter of a coming “authoritarian political regime.” “Is socialist Bolshevism going to triumph?” he asked gravely, gazing out at his congregation, which included the officers in their ribbons and most of the other powerful of the country. “Is the country heading toward a new dictatorship?”
One week later, on the evening of January 6, 1991, Haitians were awakened by the sound of explosions and automatic weapons fire coming from the palace. Shortly before one o’clock in the morning, they heard over their radios the quavering voice of President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot resigning her office, and then, a few moments later, the raspy, somewhat mocking voice of Dr. Roger Lafontant, master of repression and torture, proudly self-professed Macoute, announcing that he had assumed power as “provisional president” in order to rescue Haitians from the results of elections he called a “masquerade” and a “scathing insult.”
Word spread instantly through the slums of Port-au-Prince as Haitians went door-to-door, rousing their neighbors. Even as Lafontant busied himself within the Palace, telephoning army officers and issuing orders, the streets of the capital began to fill with angry people. They knew Lafontant well: as a staunch supporter of François Duvalier, as his son’s interior minister in 1973 and again from 1982 to 1985. Round-faced, big-bellied, bald-headed, with a hearty laugh and a mocking wit, the fifty-five-year-old gynecologist had long been a Doppelgänger, a kind of “dark twin” to Aristide; for it had been Lafontant who had first sent the young priest from the country in 1982; Lafontant who had given the country a vivid image of the most bloodthirsty “Macoutism” (which included the habit of dropping into “interrogation” sessions to watch and cheer on the torturers),16 Lafontant whom the priest could point to, after the doctor’s return from exile in July 1990, as the justification for his entering the election. The “danger was clear, already identified,” he writes, “it even had a name: Lafontant.”
Now Lafontant had seized power; but while he made his telephone calls from the Palace, and the army officers mostly sat on their hands and waited, the people took to the streets. By dawn, when the American ambassador had finally succeeded in reaching the army commander by telephone and was beseeching him to “uphold the constitutional order,” smoke was rising over the capital from burning barricades; by nine o’clock, when the officers finally led an assault on the Palace, their soldiers had to make their way through an ocean of tens of thousands of angry Haitians, who were waving machetes and pikes and bellowing for Lafontant’s head. When, after a very noisy but mostly theatrical gun battle, the troops succeeded in taking the Palace—the Macoute leader was discovered cowering in an elevator—they had all they could do to prevent Lafontant’s being lynched on the spot.
Furious crowds went on a rampage. A local radio reporter, making his way slowly through the neighborhoods that day, offered his listeners this account of the ravaged city:
Barricades are spaced at 20-meter intervals, some very high, others feeding strong fires. The population, in a terrified state, refuses passage….
Before us Delmas [Road] is dark with people, smoke, and barricades. Far away on the mountain to the right, the house of the apostolic nuncio is burning.
On Nazon Street, an apocalyptic scene awaits us. We count six burned corpses. The horror mounts. Eight dismembered bodies lie in the street. Former partisans of Roger Lafontant did not escape the fury of popular vindication. They were slaughtered with knives and pikes. Some were eviscerated, others emasculated. Before our horrified eyes a taxi driver, with passengers inside the car, drives over the bodies…17
Mobs stormed the Vatican embassy, seized the papal nuncio—who happened to be a new man, not Father Aristide’s old antagonist—and forced him into the street, where they stripped and humiliated him and beat his secretary. They sacked and burned the nunciature; burned the building that housed the Haitian bishops’ conference; sacked the house of Pascal-Trouillot’s interior minister; sacked and burned the residence of Archbishop Ligondé. (The archbishop himself, who was thought to have invited the coup attempt with his New Year’s sermon, barely escaped capture and managed to flee the country.) The mobs also burned the landmark wooden Cathedral, one of the oldest in the Americas. Across the capital, mobs set upon monuments of “Macoutism,” including offices of a well-known right-wing magazine and the house of at least one presidential candidate, as well as stores and businesses that supposedly belonged to “Macoutes”; they proceeded to loot them, then burn them down. By the time it was over, scores of people had been killed, many by the so-called Père Lebrun, the practice—named for an image in a local tire advertisement—by which a tire is placed around the victim’s neck, filled with gasoline, and then set afire. Estimates of the number of dead ranged from seventy to one hundred.
Lavalas, the Flood, had triumphed. In the general celebration, many Haitians, including several of his close advisers, urged Father Aristide, who had barely escaped capture by Lafontant’s agents, not to wait for the inauguration on February 7; he should simply assume power. Having been elected, he would now be carried to power on the shoulders of the people, swept into the Palace by a popular revolution. Aristide broached the idea to at least one embassy and, faced with a strong protest that he respect “the orderly transfer of power,” he discarded it. Now, two days after the coup attempt, he took to the radio to try to calm his followers:
Brothers and sisters, a promise is a promise. I had promised you that Mrs. Ertha Pascal-Trouillot would be back in her office as the provisional president. I wish her good luck….
I note that you are at the same time happy and sad, happy because Roger Lafontant and other terrorists like him are in jail, and sad, because he and his accomplices are not in your hands. I understand your desire to catch the powerful Macoutes today so that they do not destroy you tomorrow. This is legitimate.
Be careful, however, to avoid the trap of provocation. Beware of evil persons who are doing wrong, but accusing you. Watch for them, capture them, block them, prevent them from creating disorder…
We, the elected president of the Republic of Haiti, are protesting energetically against impunity and injustice. The fires of the nuncio and the ancient Cathedral…and other painful scenes offer a hideous show. People, the shrewd observer can recognize the explosion of popular anger in the face of impunity for the terrorist….18
As he had told me almost five years before, “One must know when to look at the acts of the people and judge them as a psychologist, not as a priest.” Not a political party or an organized group, Lavalas was simply the people, and they formed his strength. They had saved his life, his presidency. He could not denounce them, as some, including the State Department spokesman in Washington, urged him to do. He had only, he felt, to talk to them, to teach them, to implore them to be “vigilant without revenge.”
Though it came before his inauguration, the attempted coup of January 7 may have been the most important event of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency. It isolated the Macoutes politically and set before senior officers a powerful demonstration of the new president’s popular strength. For though only a handful of military men had accompanied Lafontant into the Palace, the officer corps (various accounts in the American press notwithstanding) had not exactly “defended democracy”:19 Lafontant had occupied the Palace for more than eleven hours unmolested before the officers, prodded by foreign diplomats and by their dawning realization that the people might well turn on them if they didn’t act, had moved against him.
On Inauguration Day, February 7, 1991, five years to the day after the overthrow of Duvalier, Aristide capitalized on this newfound political strength by including, in an eloquent speech, an order to retire seven senior officers, including six generals. It was a brilliant coup de théâtre, a symbol of defiant popular triumph. But it was only the capstone. For days, the denizens of the bidonvilles—the proud constituents of Lavalas—had been refurbishing their slums, picking the garbage from the dirt pathways, painting their scrapwood hovels. Never, it seemed, had the capital been so clean. On the walls, in the windows, on the storefronts—everywhere was the face of Aristide.
In the days after the jubilant inaugural, the new president performed one feat after another. He flung open the doors of Fort Dimanche, the dreaded Duvalier prison, and let the people wander through to gaze at the torture chambers where so many thousands had died. He invited the poorest of the poor to come to the Palace, where on the vast green lawns he served them a copious meal of rice and beans. Or rather, he had his soldiers serve them—soldiers, serving the poor! It was unheard of in the history of the country. And there, in the midst of it all, stood the President of the Republic, speaking softly in the ear of a deformed and crippled young beggar, whom he held tightly in his embrace.
For anyone who followed events in Haiti, these scenes could not help but inspire happiness and wonder. After five years, the popular movement had triumphed. And yet, it was not quite so simple. Aristide had reached the Palace, but before him lay the task that confronted every Haitian president: to attain power, somehow to master the entrenched system that had dominated the country for two centuries. This demanded a much more delicate political strategy. For though Aristide had achieved what he called an “overwhelming mandate,” this was rather misleading. It was true that he had won two thirds of the vote; it was equally true that the overwhelming majority of Haiti’s rich and powerful numbered themselves among the other third. The old order remained; no revolution had swept it away. Now the new president had two choices: he could move to ignite such a revolution, or he could try to accomplish his goals within the political structure that had brought him to the Palace.
To his credit, he chose the second course, but he proved singularly unfitted, by temperament and by experience, to follow it. For the political structure he inherited consisted of a decrepit and barely functioning judiciary; a plethora of political parties run by headstrong and vain “leaders” for whom compromise was synonymous with surrender; a deeply suspicious officer corps jealous of its prerogatives; and a small, well-educated, and very rich elite who, when they gazed on the face of their new president and his supporters, found it difficult to feel anything but disgust and fear. To their collective memory of the horrors of Haitian history—which extended back to the early Sixties, when François Duvalier’s noiriste followers (also wildly enthusiastic and brutal, also drawn from the slums of the capital) murdered their relatives and sacked their businesses; back to their grandfathers’ time, in 1883, when, during Bloody Week, the great black nationalist President Louis-Félicité Lysius Salomon loosed his poor black followers on the capital’s business district, which they sacked and burned, murdering anyone they found; back to the 1850s, when the Emperor Faustin I, an illiterate and enormously fat black soldier, had used his zinglins, his militia formed of black peasants, to terrorize the elite—to this stock of images were now added those of January 7, 1991, the pictures, televised again and again, of the looting and the killing and the burning in the center of Port-au-Prince, and the reluctance of the army—their protector, after all, for wasn’t it their money that flowed into the pockets of the officers?—to do anything about it.20
It was this political class that Aristide had, if not to win to his side, at least to calm. He had to do so not only for strategic reasons—for though the army might be cowed for the present, they retained the ultimate power to threaten his overthrow, which is how, after all, the great majority of Haitian presidents have left office—he had to do so for tactical reasons as well. For it fell to Aristide to govern under a constitution that had as its presiding idea not the facilitating of the programs of an extremely popular leader but the prevention of the rise of another dictator. Next to Aristide himself, the 1987 constitution was the popular movement’s proudest achievement, and it is only one of many ironies of his story that when he took office in February 1991, with the great ambition of launching a “social revolution,” it was the constitution that stood squarely in his way.
The document envisioned, contrary to almost two hundred years of Haitian history, a weak executive, tied down by more checks and balances than the ropes that bound Gulliver. The president would not even run his government day-to-day; this task would fall to the prime minister, who would be chosen from the ranks of the majority party of the National Assembly. The legislature in Haiti, very rarely more than a rubber stamp (during this century anyway), would now be powerful, in some matters dominant. Among other things, the legislators would approve the commander of the army; and it would be extremely difficult for the president to remove him before the end of his three-year term. Tampering within the command structure, a favorite pastime of Duvalier, was out of the question; the army had been thoroughly insulated from executive power.
The constitution, in other words, had little to do with the reality of governing Haiti, though it said much about the recent history of the country. (The attentive reader of its provisions could almost reconstruct the tactics Duvalier had used, working backward from the articles designed expressly to prevent their repetition.) To make the system function at all would have required the talents of a master politician, a man skilled at building and maintaining coalitions within the legislature, for example. Aristide may have won two thirds of the vote but the party under whose banner he had run had won only twenty-seven of eight-three seats in the lower house, and only thirteen of twenty-seven in the Senate. In fact, his “party,” the FNCD, was not really a party at all but a loose coalition of popular organizations, unions and quasi-parties that, in its structure, or lack of it, had little to do with parliamentary government. Moreover, Aristide did not consider the FNCD to be his party at all. There could be no question, he writes, of “my being the candidate of a single party, no matter how close it might be to my own ideas; I could not even represent a group of parties.” Parties were against everything he had stood for; they represented everything he despised. He needed no party; after all, he had Lavalas.
Lavalas represented something quite different from the FNCD…. The latter was a collection of a variety of movements and political parties and played the role of a stimulus or spur to action, at the same time that it furnished the legal organization necessary to sponsor my candidacy. Lavalas was much, much more: a river with many sources, a flood that would sweep away all the dross, all the after-effects of a shameful past.
It is the lever that will enable us, one day, to stop and to eradicate corruption…
It is clear, from his autobiography but even more from his actions while in office, that President Aristide envisioned not a representative democracy but a “direct” one. “The democracy to be built,” he says, “should be in the image of Lavalas: participatory, uncomplicated, and in permanent motion.” It is a powerful image but it has nothing whatever to do with the constitution under which he was elected. Joining Lavalas, he says, “is not like taking out membership in a political party, paying one’s dues. Instead, it means freely joining a movement that transforms perpetual vassals and servants into free men and women.” He is talking, as he admits, about revolution: “The political mutation was accomplished without armed force,” he writes. “The social revolution remained to be accomplished.” But he seems utterly unaware of the contradiction in trying to attain such a revolution—which would include “a redistribution of wealth, freely discussed”—by the strictly limited means which the election and the constitution had placed in his hands.
Aristide misses the contradiction, of course, because for him it doesn’t exist. When the obvious political course was to use his cabinet appointments to form coalitions with compatible parties, he chose to unveil a cabinet of “non-politicians,” mostly little known associates, ignoring (and out-raging) the party leaders. No matter: who were they, after all, but les candidats whom he had so long despised? But now the Parliament had power, provided by the constitution—for all the greed and vanity of the politicians, they had won office in the same election he had—and the two branches began immediately to squabble. Appointing a prime minister of some prominence might have helped; instead, Aristide chose René Préval, a longtime political associate who, though a well-meaning and decent man, commanded little respect in the legislature, for he was widely viewed as Aristide’s puppet.
Even so, the accomplishments of Aristide’s government were considerable, especially when they are set beside the generally disastrous regimes that preceded and succeeded it. Aristide’s ministers made a start on “cleaning out” the bloated and deeply corrupt government bureaucracy, in which thousands of Haitians receive “zombie checks,” a favorite form of graft whereby paychecks made out in the name of Haitians who are dead are cashed by people with connections within the ministries. This policy, however laudable, also added thousands of embittered civil servants to the ranks of his enemies. He negotiated a deal with a consortium of aid donors, including the United States, France, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, that would have brought several hundred million dollars to Haiti—although, in exchange, he had to agree to the IMF terms, which, after his years of denouncing the multilateral organizations as agents of imperialism that “suck Haiti’s blood,” caused a good deal of consternation and protest among his supporters.
Most important, he managed, by winning his victory over the “Macoute sector” and by managing for a time to improve relations with the Haitian army, greatly to reduce the nightly killing and mayhem that during the preceding few years had become a regular feature of Haitian life. His easing of l’insécurité, which allowed people, especially poor people, to walk abroad at night without fear of attack, deeply improved life for the great majority of Haitians.
By the summer of 1990, however, the strains in the system were beginning to show. The struggle within the legislature had become protracted and bitter—over the president’s right to appoint Supreme Court judges without approval; over his power to “cleanse” the bureaucracy; over, in general, his freedom of action in what was meant to be a system of highly constraining checks and balances. The congressmen wanted money and jobs, and many of them had no more use for the constitution than Aristide had; but they understood the powers it granted them and they reminded him at every opportunity that the people whose name the president so regularly invoked had elected them as well. In many cases he might have been able to win their favor by offering jobs and other perquisites, or even by treating them with some of the elaborate consideration they felt their positions demanded. But he mostly looked upon them with a contempt that was familiar from the days when he was the fiery “popular leader” and they were les candidats he despised.
Soon even members of what was supposed to be his own party were openly attacking him. As the months wore on, and the work of governing, of overcoming the constant bickering and putting a program through, became more and more frustrating, President Aristide came to rely increasingly on direct appeals to the people. To the extent he failed to build political strength within the institutions of the government, he turned to the masses that had always been his strength. And the more he did so, the more fearful became those who relied on the institutions of established power: the officers and the elite.
Aristide’s relations with the military had meantime begun to sour. By now, he had raised Cédras to the position of army commander, but he delayed in sending the nomination to the legislature, putting the officer in a difficult position—did he have authority or not?—and causing rumbles of discontent from within the officer corps. Already he had forced back into the army a number of officers who had been cashiered in recent years; many of them were deeply unpopular with the other officers, particularly the man Aristide appointed to the key position of head of the police force, Pierre Cherubin. During the summer, when enlisted men and sailors had rebelled against their commanding officers at several bases around the capital, the president had generally supported them, on occasion intervening personally to remove the officers in question. This earned him considerable popularity within the lower ranks, a popularity that the officers deeply feared. Finally, he had begun to create his own civilian security force, a contingent of well-armed bodyguards that would be trained by French and Swiss experts and would be loyal only to him. The prospect of another armed force, even a small one, deeply disturbed many within the military.
And then, on July 29, the date François Duvalier had designated National Security Volunteers [Tontons Macoutes] Day, Roger Lafontant and most of his accomplices in the January 7 coup attempt were brought to trial. For all his claims that he was the “anti-Macoute candidate,” Aristide had done little to bring to justice those who had been responsible for the large-scale killings of the post-Duvalier years, contenting himself with appointing a presidential commission. (When by the summer, it had done nothing, he appointed a second.) The trial of Roger Lafontant, therefore, became a symbol of the Aristide government’s commitment to justice.
In the event, the trial became something of a farce. Public threats of “up-rooting” made it impossible for Lafontant and the other defendants to find attorneys willing to take their cases; the court finally appointed attorneys only a few days before the trial. The trial went on for twenty-one straight hours in a circus-like atmosphere of violent intimidation and riot. Enormous crowds of lavalassiens engulfed the court house, young men brandishing tires and matches prominent among them. When the accused rose to testify—the crowds could watch the proceedings on televisions set up on the courthouse steps—the mobs began to howl and scream and push toward the courthouse doors, while young men set several tires alight. Although Lafontant was charged with a crime that under Haitian law could be punished by a maximum of fifteen years in prison, the judge, clearly intimidated by the crowd outside—who themselves were responding to open calls from President Aristide—sentenced Lafontant and seventeen others to life at hard labor.
A week later, at a rally of students, President Aristide delivered what became one of his best-known speeches. From the scene, the Radio Métro-pole reporter told listeners that the president “thinks that without popular pressure and the Père Lebrun threat”—the threat of necklacing, that is—“in front of the courthouse, the sentence to life would not have been chosen in Lafontant’s case. The head of state,” the reporter went on, “explained that the Constitution did not provide for the necklacing torture but it does not bar this practice.” The station then went on to offer a substantial excerpt from President Aristide’s comments to the students, many of which took the form of question and answer:
Was there Père Lebrun inside the courthouse?
No! [the crowd shouts back]
Was there Père Lebrun in front of the courthouse?
Did the people use Père Lebrun?
Did the people forget it?
Do they have the right to forget it?
Do not say that I said it!
In front of the courthouse, for 24 hours, Père Lebrun became a good firm bed [a Creole phrase for a cushion or a support]. Inside the courthouse, the Justice Ministry had the law in its hands, the people had their good firm bed outside. The people had their little matches in their hands. They had gas nearby. Did they use it?
That means that the people respect…?
As he had done so many times before, from the pulpit of St. Jean Bosco and elsewhere, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was using his strong voice to rally and teach the people. But now he was President of the Republic and his audience was supposed to include all the Haitians, many of whom could not be expected to view these particular efforts with understanding. As he told an interviewer later, he wanted Haiti to have what it didn’t now possess: “a judicial mechanism that produces justice.” How else, he argued, to create one but with the help of the people themselves? They would serve, he hoped, to counter-balance the structure of corruption built on money and privilege. The people, he said,
must now become a force of credibility, capable of exerting legitimate pressure on the judicial system, but without threatening it, so that when the judge knows that the people are there, united awaiting justice, the judge can feel strengthened to render justice and not succumb to the weight of money or the pressures that will come upon him.21
President Aristide sought to make of his followers, the great flood outside the courthouse, a “force of credibility.” He sought, as he always had, to shape them, to raise them up by his words, But to many Haitians, those words with their implication that deadly violence could be unleashed, did not seem at all reassuring coming from an elected President of the Republic, the man who was supposed to have responsibility to govern his people through the constitution and the established mechanisms of power. He told the student rally:
When the people heard: life in prison, the people forgot their little gas and little Père Lebrun. Was Père Lebrun used on that day?
If it had not gone well, would the people have used Père Lebrun?
Therefore, when through education one learns to to write Père Lebrun and how to think Père Lebrun, one does not use it when it is unnecessary….22
To his immediate audience, the message may have been a moderate one. But it was nonetheless the speech of a revolutionary, a leader who depended on the force of his followers to move and pressure a structure of power that he could not yet control. As another Métropole reporter told his listeners from the youth rally, the “head of state feels only a complete revolution could change things in Haiti.” Though he went on to say that “literacy is a necessary step” toward achieving such a revolution and pointed out “the important results obtained through literacy campaigns in…Cuba and Nicaragua,” it is unlikely that many of his listeners around the country heard much beyond the word “revolution,” for to them that was what their president represented.
By now, relations with the legislature had reached a crucial point. In August, the legislative leaders summoned Prime Minister René Préval for a vote on what was, in effect, a measure of no confidence that, if successful, would have unseated the Préval government. On the day of the vote, thousands of chanting Aristide supporters surrounded the Palais Législatif, displaying stacks of tires, waving matches and cans of gasoline, and screaming threats to burn the legislators. Inside the chamber, the noise was deafening; and the vote did not take place. As they tried to escape the building, at least two deputies were surrounded by lavalassiens and beaten, one of them severely. A mob moved through the capital, sacking, among other places, the offices of a left-wing trade union whose leader had called for Aristide’s resignation and of a political mass organization that had been one of his key supporters in the election.
President Aristide would later try to make peace with the legislature, visiting the Palais with a bouquet of flowers in hand and persuading them to hold off on the no-confidence measure. But the example had been set. The congressmen had tried, through obstructionist, perhaps irresponsible but still quite legal means, to unseat the Péval government, and they had been prevented by the president’s mobs in the streets. It was, in retrospect, a critical break with the traditional politicians. It convinced many among the political class and among what the Aristide refers to as “the bourgeoisie”—who, he writes, had been given the opportunity by Lavalas “to opt for a democratic transition rather than for a violent revolution”—that President Aristide, when it came down to it, had no more respect for the constitution than any other Haitian ruler.
A critical mass had been attained. On the one hand, Aristide was showing signs of weakness. The president’s support in parliament, even among the deputies and senators supposedly committed to him, had reached a low point. He had been under increasing criticism even from some of the popular groups for his willingness to come to an agreement with the IMF—which they considered a foremost symbol of evil. The officers and many of the well-to-do had become increasingly worried by events like the rioting on August 13, and what they might portend. For their part, the officers were annoyed by the “temporary” status of Cédras’s appointment; concerned about the civilian security detail, which would put weapons in the hands of some of his supporters; and threatened by the president’s interventions to defend the troops after their rebellions. And perhaps their chance might pass: Aristide was speaking at the United Nations, soon he would visit President Bush in Washington, hundreds of millions of dollars of aid were on the way. If not now, when?
By mid-September, as the president prepared to leave for New York to address the United Nations, rumors of a coup were everywhere.
Even as President Aristide stood before the General Assembly, on September 25, 1991, officers of the unit known as the Cafeteria—which, under the command of an ambitious major named Michel François, had responsibility for the downtown business district—were addressing their troops, detailing the operation that was to unfold that weekend. Aristide’s people picked up the rumors and relayed them to New York. By the time he returned on Friday, the president had grown angry and defiant. He was hustled from his plane—according to some soldiers, the original plot entailed seizing the president, or even shooting him, as he emerged from the cabin—and into his jeep, and he and his entourage began the drive into the city. It turned out to be a painfully slow procession, for the people of the bidonvilles had been alerted, and by now the roadside was packed with tens of thousands of cheering Haitians. It was a demonstration of strength.
At the Palace, to another vast and wildly demonstrating crowd, he stepped forward to deliver what has become, sadly, his most famous single address. It is the speech of an aggrieved man, a leader who believed that he had behaved reasonably and prudently, and who now sees that his patience and restraint had gained him nothing: his enemies were plotting still to overthrow him. He begins his discourse with an appeal to the well-to-do, imploring them to “cooperate by using the money…to create work opportunities…so more people can get jobs.”
If you do not do so, I feel sorry for you. Really I do. [laughter from the crowd] It will not be my fault because this money you have is not really yours. You acquired it through criminal activity. You made it by plundering, by embezzling…. You made it under oppressive regimes…, under a corrupt system…. Today, seven months after 7 February, on a day ending in seven, I give one last chance. I ask you to take this chance, because you will not have two or three more chances, only one. Otherwise, it will not be good for you. [applause]…
While there exist patriotic bourgeoisie who earned their money “through honest work,” he tells the crowd, unfortunately, “they are few…not the majority.” He goes on to implore the deputies and senators to “work together with the people,” because, Aristide says, “we prefer to fail with the masses than succeed without them.” Then, after a plea to state employees to remember that “diverting state money is stealing, and thieves do not deserve to stay in public administration,” he proceeds to deliver what will become the most notorious words of his public career:
If I catch a thief, a robber, a swindler, or an embezzler, if I catch a fake lavalas…. If you catch someone who does not deserve to be where he is, do not fail to give him what he deserves. [crowd cheers] Do not fail to give him what he deserves! Do not fail to give him what he deserves!
Your tool is in your hands. Your instrument is in your hands. Your Constitution is in your hand. Do not fail to give him what he deserves. [loud cheers from the crowd]. That device is in your hands. Your trowel is in your hands….
Article 291 of the Constitution, which is symbolized by the center of my head where there is no more hair, provides that the Macoutes are excluded from the political game. Macoutes are excluded from the political game. Macoutes are excluded from the political game. Do not fail to give them what they deserve. You spent three sleepless nights in front of the National Penitentiary. If one escapes, do not fail to give him what he deserves [loud cheers crowd].23
You are watching all Macoute activities throughout the country. We are watching and praying. If we catch one, do not fail to give him what he deserves. What a nice tool! What a nice instrument! [loud cheers from crowd] What a nice device! [crowd cheers] It is a pretty one. It is elegant, attractive, splendorous, graceful, and dazzling. It smells good. Wherever you go, you feel like smelling it. [crowd cheers] It is provided for by the Constitution, which bans Macoutes from the political scene.24
These words would later form the heart of a campaign of defamation against Aristide—a campaign expertly designed and promoted by the Haitian military (and still pursued by Senator Helms and his allies in the CIA and in Congress). But when taken in context, the extreme rhetoric of this speech is not very mysterious: it was a call to arms, an effort to rally his followers and to intimidate his enemies—who even as he spoke, as he well knew, were plotting to overthrow him.25 It was an effort, that is, to hold power by brandishing what had always been his greatest strength and his most feared weapon—the Flood, the avalanche represented by the poor multitudes who were now cheering before him.
Which is to say that the speech was an act of politics, an effort to prevent, by threatening the violent use of the power he had, what has almost always been the consequence of political failure in Haiti: a coup d’état. That is why placing the speech at the center of a campaign against Aristide as a “violator of human rights” has always seemed a bit strange; if it comes to that, there is little doubt that no more Haitians died of abuses under Aristide than under the regime that preceded him, and certainly far fewer than under the one that supplanted him.26
But in the end human rights did not bring Aristide down, politics did. For if many of the charges made against him are demonstrably, factually wrong, they are not absurd; they are a quite vivid projection of the fears of those who had always held power in Haiti—a projection of what they were certain was coming. These expectations were by no means based solely on their distrust of Aristide, or on their misreading of his character. At least in part, they represented their recognition that, if the president were to achieve what he so fervently wanted to achieve—a “social revolution,” a “redistribution of wealth, freely discussed”—if he truly was intent on achieving these things, then they would feel bound to resist him, and violence would be inevitable.
By this measure, as it happened, the speech proved to be a failure. Aristide had launched an angry challenge to those who opposed him, and given a clear sign that he knew what the rules would be—rules allowing the use of naked power which he doubtless did not favor, but which he had clearly shown, on several occasions, he was prepared to accept. When the time came, and his antagonists played by those rules—with a much greater ruthlessness than he may have contemplated—he and his forces found themselves utterly unprepared, and they were routed.
When the rumors of a coup persisted, and the signs of trouble at various military bases became undeniable, Aristide telephoned General Cédras, who “supported me in my skepticism, and we laughed about it together.” He trusted Cédras, had “chosen to cultivate a good deal of confidence in our relationship.” Had the general not, after all, “often remarked on his attachment to the democratic process”?
Throughout its various incarnations during the past few decades, the Haitian army has shown one consistent trait: an overriding fear of division, a reluctance to set one soldier against another. An aggressive officer, if he has the right command, can often succeed in staging a coup that many officers don’t strongly support because they will refuse to act against him. Even now, General Cédras’s role in the coup is unclear. It is unlikely that it was as innocent as the Bush administration and the US embassy in Port-au-Prince would later claim; but it was always doubtful that even an “attachment to the democratic process,” however strong it was or wasn’t, would lead Cedras to move against his fellow officers, if they were determined to act.
Late Sunday night, shooting erupted throughout the capital. Soldiers fired on President Aristide’s house, where he had gone the day before.
The night was shattered by cries and by the incessant noise of automatic weapons. It was impossible for me to leave my house, which had been transformed into a bunker. It was equally impossible for me to send out an appeal that would be heard.
The officers had taken the obvious step: by shutting down the radio stations, they had cut off Aristide’s most potent weapon—his voice. Now squads of soldiers made their way into the bidonvilles, shooting anyone they saw, firing into the scrapwood hovels. When the people came out into the garishly lit streets, the soldiers shot them down. It was a simple tactic, with a long and honored history in Haitian politics. (The army last used it to devastating effect in 1957, before Duvalier was elected, to decimate the ranks of the populist who had been his most important rival.) The people, confused, frightened, and disorganized—they had received no mot d’ordre from their leader—stumbled into the streets and died. Automatic weapons, ruthlessly employed, had given the lie to Aristide’s “unarmed revolution.”
Around Aristide’s house, meanwhile, a great crowd had gathered. Dancing, singing, raising their machetes and their pikes high as the sun rose, they defied what they knew was coming. With automatic weapons clattering in the distance, they sang the songs they had made to honor him:
The country is made for you!
Sit where you like, there you are
Many wanted to walk with the president to the Palace, to enfold him in their numbers and protect him as he retook the seat of power. Perhaps it might have worked: by now the diplomats were trying to intervene, urging Cédras—who denied he was in control of the “rebel” troops—to “protect the constitutional order.” Perhaps in broad daylight the soldiers would not have had the nerve to massacre thousands of people in the street.
But Aristide would have none of it. He accepted the French ambassador’s dramatic offer to escort him to the Palace. Twice, as they made their way through the deserted, corpse-strewn streets, soldiers ambushed their entourage, forcing the president and his personal security officers to stop and return fire. Finally, he reached the Palace and the company of the presidential guards, whom the president was convinced would protect him. They were, after all, the ti soldats, the little soldiers who, as he often said, might as well have formed part of Lavalas itself. But as he entered the Palace, the ti soldats began to stream out of it, toward the military head-quarters across the square. Finally, apart from a handful of loyal aides, Aristide was left alone in the great white building. Soon, the troops—among them, presidential guards who had fled moments before—came to take him. They handcuffed him, hustled him to the headquarters building where he was greeted by a smiling General Cédras, the protector of the elections that brought Aristide to power:
Cédras is pleased with himself. The officers drink to his health. There is the atmosphere of a macabre festival alongside the bloodied faces of my friends. I myself have my hands tied. They try to humiliate me. The military discuss my fate in loud tones. “We ought to kill him.” They almost get into an argument about who will have the pleasure of doing it.
Fortunately for Aristide, as it happened, “international reaction is worrying the more ‘political’ among them.” The American ambassador, the French and Venezuelan, were all intervening to save the president’s life.
And so, late that night, Jean-Bertrand Aristide sat in a deserted airport waiting amid a crowd of abusive, drunken soldiers for the Venezuelan plane that would carry him to exile.
Two years have passed since Aristide sat waiting in that airport in Port-au-Prince and he has spent them working tirelessly to engineer his return. From bases first in Caracas, now in Washington, he has traveled the world, attending conferences and meetings, delivering eloquent addresses to the United Nations and the OAS, meeting with presidents and prime ministers. At the heart of his complex diplomatic struggle lies a single fact. Four days after Aristide’s ouster, President Bush offered a clue to it when he remarked that, while he was “committed to the restoration of democracy,” he was “reluctant to use US forces to try to accomplish it.”
There’s a lesson out there for all presidents, and the lesson I’ve learned is that you’ve got to be very, very careful of using United States forces in this hemisphere.27
Standing beside the President, Father Aristide listened to the words that, as it turned out, have largely determined his exile. For if his restoration might not have required the return of American troops to Port-au-Prince, it would at least have required a willingness to risk such a return—a willingness to deliver a believable threat that might have changed the Haitian officers’ minds. And that, from the beginning, the United States has shown itself unwilling to do.
Haiti, as an American diplomat told me shortly after the coup, is “the original tar baby. No one wants to be forced to go in.” Had Ambassador Adams been able credibly to threaten the use of force, even as President Aristide was barricaded inside his house, the coup might never have succeeded, and Aristide might still be in Haiti. But, as one US government official put it, “Adams just didn’t have enough arrows in his quiver.” The Bush administration officials didn’t want to threaten to send in the marines unless they were really willing to do so, and they didn’t have to look too deeply within their souls to realize that—for Haiti, for Father Aristide—they simply were not willing.28
Their successors in the Clinton administration are not willing, either, which is why we have the Governors Island Accord and the fiasco that has followed from it. Among other things, the agreement makes no provision for enforcement, other than the re-imposition of sanctions. Now that sanctions have been re-imposed and a near-blockade has been imposed, administration and United Nations officials keep saying that sanctions “brought Cédras to the table last time”—without seeming to notice that last time, General Cédras and his officers came to Governors Island and essentially took Clinton administration and United Nations officials to the cleaners. They negotiated an accord that made no provision for justice: those responsible for the coup will simply retire (in the case of General Cédras) or be transferred to other posts. The Haitian army would not have to endure a “housecleaning”—such a provision, after all, might have required the United States to contribute something more than a contingent of unarmed, or lightly armed, “combat engineers and technical advisers.” In one way or another, under the current accord, Aristide would be expected to work with many of the same officers that had over-thrown him and murdered his followers. That is why President Aristide was reluctant to sign, and why he had torpedoed a similar agreement negotiated in Washington in February 1992, intensely annoying the Bush administration.
In the end, he had no choice. He signed, and then watched while the killings in Port-au-Prince inexorably increased as the date of his supposed return grew closer. He listened as officials from the United Nations and the US Embassy went on making their optimistic noises, even as his friends and followers were being murdered. And he watched as the American troopship sailed into Haitian waters—and then, faced with a handful of civilians with guns and loud voices, turned tail and sailed out again.
So Father Aristide waits in Washington. At the end of October, he went before the United Nations and demanded that the foreign countries apply a “total embargo” against Haiti—a tactic last applied to Haiti, unsuccessfully, by the French at the beginning of the nineteenth century. So far, the Americans, among others, have been unwilling to go along.
In Haiti, meantime, the people suffer; CARE, which feeds six hundred thousand Haitians every day—one in ten—has announced it may halt its food deliveries to the countryside because of lack of fuel. If this happens, many people will starve.
February 7 will mark the end of the third year of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s five-year term. He has spent thirty-one weeks in the Palace. In Haiti, his followers wait faithfully for him. But his enemies have proved to be tenacious, and it is hard to believe that they will ever allow him to rule Haiti again.
—November 4, 1993
This is the third part of a three-part article.
December 2, 1993
See my “Haiti on the Verge” and “The Prophet,” parts one and two of the present review, The New York Review, November 4 and 18, 1993. ↩
See R. Jeffrey Smith and John M. Goshko, “CIA’s Aristide Profile Spurs Hill Concern,” The Washington Post, October 22, 1993, p. A26. ↩
See The Congressional Record, Vol. 139, No. 143, October 21, 1993. ↩
See “The World Today,” CNN, October 22, 1993; Smith and Goshko, “CIA’s Aristide Profile Spurs Hill Concern”; R. Jeffrey Smith, “Hill Briefing About Aristide Renews Debate on CIA Role,” The Washington Post, October 24, 1993, p. A28; and Robert D. Novak, “Allegations About Aristide,” The Washington Post, October 28, 1993, page A23. ↩
For Cheney, see “This Week With David Brinkley,” ABC News, October 24, 1993, and Charlie Rose, PBS, October 28, 1993. For Scowcroft, see Jessica Lee and Maria Puente, “Haiti’s Aristide a man with multiple faces,” USA Today, October 22, 1993, p. 6A; and “The World Today,” CNN, October 22, 1993. ↩
In the way of Washington, the rain of leaks from Aristide’s critics in time produced an answering drizzle from his allies, beginning October 31, when The New York Times, citing unnamed “government officials,” reported that “a document used to brand President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti as mentally unstable was probably a forgery.” This document, which had previously been circulated in a Congressional hearing, and which “purports to describe Mr. Aristide’s medical history,” had in fact been “based on uncorroborated information supplied by his political enemies in Haiti.” ↩
See Steven A. Holmes, “Administration Is Fighting Itself On Haiti Policy,” The New York Times, October 23, 1993, p. A1, and Steven Greenhouse, “Clinton Defends Aristide,” The New York Times, October 24, 1993, p. 7. ↩
See R. Jeffrey Smith, “Hill Briefing About Aristide Renews Debate on CIA Role,” The Washington Post, October 24, 1993, p. A28. ↩
See “Newsmaker Interview,” Mac-Neil/Lehrer NewsHour, PBS, October 22, 1993. ↩
See The Rainy Season (Simon and Schuster, 1989), p. 141. ↩
“April Fool” is a pun on General Avril’s name, which is French for April. ↩
He was never, however, “defrocked,” notwithstanding the accounts of various commentators in the American press, including, for example, Robert Novak in The Washington Post. Aristide remained a priest, though he could conduct mass only with the co-operation of a bishop. ↩
Interview with the author, Port-au-Prince, August 1989. ↩
In his airport arrival remarks in Port-au-Prince in November, Adams had quoted a Creole proverb—Bourik chaje pa kanpe: “A loaded donkey can’t stand still”—which was universally taken to be a criticism of Avril’s refusal to let Haiti, “loaded” and ready for democracy, move to elections. The remark earned Adams a good deal of popularity among Haitians—unheard of for a foreign diplomat, let alone an American one—most of whom hence-forth knew him only by his nickname, Loaded Donkey. ↩
See Leslie F. Manigat, Haiti of the Sixties: Object of International Concern (The Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research, 1964), pp. 23–24. ↩
Sylvio Claude, a popular presidential candidate who later died at the hands of lavalassiens during the coup against Aristide, told me that during Jean-Claude’s rule, while his men were beating and torturing Claude, Lafontant liked to drop by to pass the time. “He would watch, and he would make jokes and laugh,” Claude said. “It was like the Romans—you know, laughing as the lions devoured the Christians.” ↩
Radio Métropole, broadcast January 8, 1991, as recorded and translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. ↩
Haiti Radio-Inter, January 9, 1993, as recorded and translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service. ↩
See, among many examples, “A General Chooses Democracy in Haiti,” an editorial in The New York Times, January 9, 1991. ↩
Though Aristide certainly did not order it, and though Lafontant provoked it, it was certainly lavalassiens who committed most of the pillaging and killing in their leader’s defense. Which is why it makes little sense for America’s Watch and other human rights organizations to attribute, in what is otherwise a thorough and judicious report, the deaths that occurred to Ertha Pascal-Trouillot and her administration: ↩
See Anne-Christine d’Adesky, “Titid! President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” Interview, October 1991, p. 90. ↩
Radio Métropole, August 5, 1991, as recorded and translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. I have made a few slight changes in the translation. ↩
Crowds had gathered before the penitentiary in response to rumors that Roger Lafontant was about to escape. ↩
Radio Nationale, September 27, 1991, as recorded and translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service. ↩
Unfortunately, President Aristide himself has considerably muddied the waters by insisting for more than two years that he was referring not to Père Lebrun but to the Constitution—an assertion that a full reading of the speech and a viewing of the videotape shows to be quite insupportable. Only recently has he begun to respond, when asked about the speech, that readers should “put the text in its context. The coup had started. I was using words to answer bullets.” See Joel Attinger and Michael Kramer’s interview, “It’s Not If I Go Back, but When,” Time, November 1, 1993, p. 28. ↩
See, for example, “The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record,” p. 6 and passim. ↩
See Norman Kempster, “Bush Against Sending GIs to Haiti,” The Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1991. ↩
The masterful propaganda offensive that the Haitian military launched during the weeks after the coup, together with the vehement anti-Aristide sentiment expressed by many politicians, including many deputies and senators, didn’t make the administration any more willing. And though to my knowledge there has never been any convincing evidence brought forward to support the conviction—widespread among Haitians, and particularly among Aristide’s supporters among the intellectual class—that the United States secretly supported the coup, certainly officials in various parts of the US government actively mistrusted and disliked him. The Los Angeles Times, for example, quotes a source who was “working in a senior position for the Senate Intelligence Committee” to the effect that “there were those in the CIA who were not pleased with [Aristide] in the past and don’t want him to be more successful now.” This particular source traces the Agency’s antipathy to the threat the CIA believes is posed by liberation theology: “Liberation theology proponents are not too popular at the agency,” he says. “Maybe second only to the Vatican for not liking liberation theology are the people at Langley.” See Jim Mann, “CIA’s Aid Plan Would Have Undercut Aristide in ’87-’88,” The Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1993, p. 1. ↩