In the beginning there was Titide, preacher of the slums and shantytowns and voice of the disenfranchised. Titide - Jean-Bertrand Aristide - was ordained in 1983 and served as parish priest at the Don Bosco church in Port-au-Prince. Haitians had suffered under the Duvaliers since 1957, when François “Papa Doc” took power. When the brutal dictatorship of his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” ended in 1986, Titide was the great hope of a desperate people.
When Haitians finally voted in free elections in 1990, it was no surprise that Aristide was elected president. He waited until the last day of registration to announce his candidacy, ensuring an electrifying campaign called Lavalas, Creole for flood. With hindsight it is easy to see this rush of enthusiasm as excessive and misplaced. “We didn’t have time to think about his personality as an individual,” admits one of his many former supporters. “We didn’t have time to think about how he would move from the status of a prophet, speaking out against evil, to a position of power.”
But what power? Even as a president newly elected by a massive majority, Aristide was not in full control of his destiny. The world saw how the United States invaded Grenada in 1984 and crushed the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In Haiti, US intervention took the form of CIA aid to General Raoul Cédras, who ousted Aristide in a coup barely seven months after the election, to the delight of President George Bush Sr.
On 29 September 1991 Haiti entered three years of orchestrated chaos that left many Lavalassiens dead. But the US did not intervene again until 19 September 1994, when Bill Clinton’s ad ministration, with United Nations backing, sent 20,000 soldiers to reinstate the legitimate government and (more importantly from the US viewpoint) stop an armada of boat people who sought refuge in the US.
Yet Aristide’s comeback was not a return to the good old days: by 29 February 2004 when his third term as president ended (René Préval served from 1995 to 2000), the consensus was that he no longer cared about anything but power and money. This assertion was accompanied by a list of the little curé’s misdemeanours: he was thought to be an accomplice to (if not directly responsible for) every crime - drugs trafficking, political assassinations and the dead dogs in the street. Could this be the man who received the 1996 Unesco prize for human rights education? Or is he being unfairly demonised, as popular leaders, notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, are when they have the nerve to upset the established disorder in the US’s backyard?
Aristide’s experiences during his three-year exile in the US loom over this. He presumably arrived in a state of frustration and despair. But he returned transformed, Americanised: “He left as Aristide and came back as Harry Steed,” says Anna Jean Charles of the Batay Ouvriyé union (see box below). In Washington the pitit soyèt (child of the people) aligned with the Democratic party and the Congressional Black Caucus (a grouping of black members of the House of Representatives) and discovered the US establishment, big business and capitalism. Treated as a serving president in charge of Haiti’s frozen assets, he grew greedy. With the help of his new Democrat friends, he had an embargo imposed on Haiti, with devastating effects for his poorest compatriots. The new friends brought Aristide back to power and were richly rewarded in the ensuing round of privatisations, particularly in telecommunications.
No Longer Priest of the Poor
For, on his return to power, the former priest of the poor followed the instructions of the international financial institutions and liberalised the Haitian economy. He had his own peculiar way of doing this. Jean-Claude Bajeux was minister for culture when the first round of privatisations was debated by the cabinet. “When the prime minister, Michel Smarck, said we should draw up some invitations to tender, the president interrupted him: ’Why don’t we just arrange it so we can share these things out between us?’ “
Yet this is the Aristide to whom Haiti owes its only ever peaceful transition of power between two democratically elected leaders. In December 1995, constitutionally excluded from standing for election immediately, he gave way to Préval, a friend and former prime minister. The seeds of the crisis in 2004 were sown during this period: Aristide moved into a grandiose villa on the edge of Port-au-Prince, no longer Titide but the “Duke of Tabarre” after the suburb in which it was built.
The Lavalas Political Organisation (OPL), which had supported Aristide since 1991, more out of self-interest than political conviction, and was the largest party in parliament, defected from the Lavalas movement. The OPL prime minister, Rosny Smarth, resigned in June 1997, beginning a long period of political stagnation. There were already many cracks in Haiti’s democratic system before the May 2000 elections, which were to fill 7,500 seats at local and national levels.
Although international monitors judged that the vote had, on the whole, been properly handled, the results were fiercely contested. Seven seats in the senate were handed directly to candidates who should have had to win a second round to ensure election. It was a peculiar situation because Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family), Aristide’s new party, had been assured of a massive majority without having to cheat. “But he just had to control every single thing,” recalls Micha Gaillard, who was a spokesman for Aristide while in exile: “He wanted 100% of the seats in parliament. As he said during the coup, ’I am the hub of a bicycle wheel and all the spokes point to me’.”
Some maintain that Aristide did not cheat and that the cheating was the work of a few overzealous members of his party who filled the urns to overflowing. His only error was that “he did not speak out and left the system to rot”. Maybe so. But a revealing passage in the Fanmi Lavalas party constitution undermines such confidence: “President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been elected National Representative” [party leader], reads clause 29, while clause 32 states: “The position of National Representative becomes vacant if the Representative dies or resigns” 1. Nowhere is there any reference to internal elections. Aristide had declared himself president for life of his party. This revelation leaves little to distinguish his political philosophy from that of the Duvaliers.
Aristide’s artificially enhanced victory in the May 2000 elections flew right back in his face. The opposition, electorally weak, was able to capitalise on this opportunity to cause a scandal by boycotting the presidential election that November. Although Aristide won that easily and genuinely, his fervent popular support undiminished, the international community froze most of its aid and loan payments to Haiti. The country plunged into destitution and chaos.
Doubts as to whether Aristide was good or bad persisted, confusing Haiti. Father Frantz Gandoit, a priest of the Dominican order, was appointed and remains head of Haiti’s literacy campaign. “On certain issues,” he says, “Aristide maintained a true social vision. He was determined to succeed in certain areas. He genuinely wanted to see far-reaching improvements in education. But on other issues he engaged in realpolitik of the most Machiavellian kind.” Some continued to see Aristide as a progressive leader struggling against the Yankee monster. But he no longer preached anti-Americanism: though he still cited Haiti’s liberation hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture, in speeches, he dropped all mention of Charlemagne Péralte, martyr of the resistance against the 1915-1934 American occupation, who was executed in November 1919.
"Hub of the Bicycle Wheel"
As a lucky few amassed fortunes and all other Haitians scraped by from day to day, the ministry of social affairs systematically sided with bosses against the workers. The regime even used the assassination, on 27 May 2002 at a rally in Guacimale, of two unionists linked to Batay Ouvriyé as a pretext for arresting union members. Confidence in the regime evaporated further with the cooperatives scandal of 2001-2002. In a speech at the national stadium, Aristide invited Haitians to save money by investing in new institutions called, for reasons unexplained, cooperatives. It was never clear who was in charge of these, hastily set up amid total disorganisation. While encouraging investors to act out of a spirit of social solidarity, they promised ludicrous rates of interest - 12% a month or 140% annually. A fever swept the middle-classes and some sold cars and homes in the hope of doubling their investment in a year. Even the poorest dug deep into their pockets. Then, suddenly and simultaneously, the cooperatives went bust. Around $170m had been invested. The government’s only action was to imprison the chairman of the victims’ association, Rosemond Jean. The anti-Aristide movement strengthened.
Aristide bears much of the responsibility for this scandal but the opposition was not blameless. The OPL (it kept the acronym after dropping its association with Lavalas, calling itself Organisation du Peuple en Lutte, organisation of struggling peoples) attacked Aristide for complying with International Monetary Fund directives, forgetting that its own leader, Rosny Smarth, signed a structural adjustment plan when he was prime minister. The OPL claims that out of a spirit of compromise it did not enact its own programme when it was the largest party in parliament (1995-2000).
After his re-election in November 2000, Aristide tried to correct the irregularities of the May vote by asking the seven improperly elected Fanmi Lavalas senators to resign. But the opposition had lost interest in compromise. It boycotted Congress and would not participate in government initiatives. Instead it denounced the state of the economy, due mostly to the US trade embargo, which was justified by the political crisis that its own attitude perpetuated. Even more hypocritically, it attacked the government for refusing to negotiate.
Yet the opposition parties, united as the Demo cratic Convergence coalition 2, had little real electoral importance. Their survival depended on the support of the Group of 184, which brought together organisations within Haitian civil society. The leader of the Group was André Apaid, Haiti’s largest industrial employer. His businesses had some 4,000 workers, each paid 68 US cents a day. Not content with ignoring Haiti’s official minimum wage of $1.50, Apaid had opposed Aristide’s proposals that it be increased. He was not the likeliest associate for a movement of broadly centre-left political parties.
"Consensus on a Range of Issues"
But that did not seem to worry the coalition. “There is consensus on a whole range of issues,” said Gérard Pierre-Charles, general coordinator of the OPL, “democracy, civic freedoms, the need to change the way we live in Haiti.” Divisions, potential divisions, old wounds and the lack of any common agenda were smoothed over in service of a single, unifying purpose: to get rid of Aristide. Pierre-Charles is one of many intellectuals, leaders and campaigners - including Micha Gaillard and Claude Bajeux of the National Congress of Democratic Movements (Konakom) - whose courage and probity are not in doubt. But all were part of a coalition whose ambiguous nature and intransigent tactics brought catastrophe to Haiti.
Its refusal to negotiate with Aristide left him isolated, abandoned by the international community and deprived of aid. His only option was to fall back on the support of the impoverished masses, many of whom were unaware how their hero had changed. Most saw attacks on Titide as an attempt to take power away from the people. It is not hard to understand why. The Democratic Platform (a coalition of Democratic Convergence and the Group of 184) had not, as a political entity, proposed a single social policy reform. The violence always beneath the surface of Haitian society boiled over as the Chimères, armed gangs of Aristide supporters who recalled the Duvaliers’ Tontons Macoutes (bogeymen), attacked the opposition.
Aristide has been given more than his fair share of blame for the violence. “If you put people, no matter who, under this sort of pressure, if you plunge them deep into despair and crush them to death,” says an angry Jacques Barros, former head of the French Institute in Haiti 3, “then this is what you get. You go from Weimar Republic to Hitler, from the League of the Just to Stalin, from the Salesians of Don Bosco to the Chimères.” The people were used to being attacked: General Cédras’s dictatorship had wiped out the leadership of the popular struggle and killed 4,000 followers. Attacks on Fanmi Lavalas supporters were still frequent as late as 2003 - there were murderous raids at Petit-Goâve and in the central plain 4. Insecurity swept the country and any family that could afford to do so armed itself.
This helps to explain, if not to justify, how Haitians came to be enthralled by a romantic image of themselves as a people in arms. Yet the emergence of the Chimères did change the nature of Haitian violence. Since Aristide had disbanded the army on return from exile, the state had armed its citizens as a defence against a repetition of the military coup that brought Cédras to power in 1991. Weapons were handed out to government officials, local councils and citizens with leadership qualities and a concern for social justice, or passed around the shantytown-dwellers. Some of these, once armed, began to make demands and threats. Greedily amassing power, they organised themselves into gangs and mafia networks. The police collaborated with these groups in operations from kidnapping to drugs-trafficking. Ruling their neighbourhoods with an iron hand, these gangs also engaged in political violence, supporting the president by attacking opposition demonstrations and burning down party headquarters.
Encouraging the Violence
There is no proof that Aristide had any hand in running these groups. But he never spoke out against them and made no attempt to quell their activities. “He did just the opposite,” says a former ally, bitterly. “He explained that they were the products of destitution, which is true, but his whole tone was implicitly egging them on.” What mattered for Aristide was to have a clientele within the popular movement, so that he could control the violence if he needed to do so.
The strategy backfired. The rebellion in the port of Gonaïves in February 2004 was led by Butteur Métayer, a member of the Cannibal Army, a gang that supported Aristide in exchange for control over the port’s customs. Métayer had fallen out of favour with the president and accused the regime of killing his brother. He changed sides. His uprising was soon joined by former soldiers, criminals, drug-traffickers and underworld figures from the Dominican Republic. The rebellion spread across Haiti until it controlled five of nine administrative areas and brought down the president.
This mercenary army did not come out of nowhere. US Republicans may have hated Aristide, but he had maintained a state of relative calm and agreed to neoliberal reforms. Officially they supported him to the end. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made strenuous efforts to reach a deal with the opposition. Neither the CIA nor the ultra-conservative Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, wanted to see Haiti taken over by men they had not chosen.
In March 2004 in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, the Haiti Commission of Inquiry, headed by former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark, published its preliminary findings. Aristide was languishing in Jamaica. Noting that 200 US special forces had travelled to the Dominican Republic for “military exercises” in February 2003, the commission accused the US of arming and training Haitian rebels there. With permission from the Dominican president, Hipólito Mejía, US forces trained near the border, in an area used by former soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army to launch attacks on Haitian state property. (The Dominican Republic’s collusion is not new. In the 1980s Honduras played a similar role in the US campaign against the Sandinistas of Nicaragua.)
With US-trained fighters at their core, the rebel gangs spread to Haiti, creating the situation that enabled US ambassador James Foley to force Aristide out on 29 February 2004. Washington’s principal western ally was Paris. France was keen to repair relations with the US after the Iraq crisis and anxious to prevent the US from taking Haiti out of the French sphere of influence within which it had always been. France had little time for Aristide, who demanded $21bn as repayment for the 90m gold francs Haiti had paid for independence from France in 1804.
Regardless of Aristide’s personal faults, his departure has worried many observers, particularly leaders of other Caribbean and South American states: what right do powers such as the US and France have to remove a head of state this way? “I never received a single document saying that the president had resigned,” says Ivon Feuillé of Famni Lavalas, chairman of the National Assembly at the time of Aristide’s departure. Not without reason many see the Franco-American intervention in Haiti as a dangerous precedent that could encourage the US to do something similar in Cuba or Venezuela or even Colombia or Bolivia.
But the former Haitian opposition has other things on its mind. It was partially robbed of its victory by the US. On 21 February Aristide’s opponents rejected a generous plan by which he had agreed to cooperate with them in forming a new, multi-party government, with an independent and neutral prime minister. For the rebels, though, Aristide had to go. And so he went. The rest of the script was written in Washington. The government was handed to an imported prime minister, Gérard Latortue 5, and many foreign troops moved on to Haitian soil 6. On 20 March Latortue referred to the self-declared rebels (many of them former torturers from the disbanded army) as freedom fighters, and there is talk of recruiting some to a police force desperately in need of new blood. In the countryside, they have taken charge, either by force or natural leadership, and are helping the big landowners and other Duvalier supporters to bring back the good old days, using terror to impose their will and steal land from small farmers.
There is talk of elections. But for as long as the North (Cap Haïtien), Artibonite province (Gonaïves) and the central plateau remain in the hands of these armed gangs, it is hard to see how a campaign could be organised. Meanwhile the witch-hunt against Aristide’s supporters goes on. Many have been forbidden to leave the country and their movements within Haiti restricted; there have been arrests and illegal extraditions. Many are in hiding; others have been murdered. Yet Fanmi Lavalas seems likely to remain, for the foreseeable future, the most popular political movement.
1. “Charte, statuts et règlements de Fanmi Lavalas”, First Congress, 14-16 December 1999, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
2. Democratic Convergence was made up of social-democratic parties: the OPL, Konakom, the Haitian Nationalist Revolutionary party, the Democratic Unity Convention; centrist parties including the Christian Democratic party; and four or five others.
3. Barros is also the author of Haiti de 1804 à nos jours, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1984.
4. “Haiti: Abuse of human rights: political violence as the 200th anniversary of independence approaches”,Amnesty International, London, October 2003.
5. Latortue is an international diplomat who has lived outside Haiti for 30 years.
6. The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, led by Brazil, has replaced the original interim peace-keeping force of troops from the US, France, Canada and Chile.