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Le Saut Falls, Sodo, Haiti

douard Jean. Toussaint Dirige Vers la Bataille



Aristide: An Autobiography

Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, ©1993.

Aristide's autobiography was first published in French in 1992 under the title Tout homme est un home or "every person is a human being."

The articles in In the Parish of the Poor were selected and translated by Wilentz. She also wrote a 140-page "Foreword" that is informative though it overstates the authority and pervasiveness of the Roman Catholic Church among the rural and urban poor.

Perhaps the first thing to understand about Aristide is that the masses of Haiti regard him as a saint and a savior; some, indeed, regard him as immortal--due, no doubt, in large part to his awesome personal courage and his escape from several nearly successful assassination attempts. The people of Haiti refer to Aristide affectionately as Titid or Ti Pe (the little father).

His church, St. Jean Bosco, is on the edge of an infamous Port-au-Prince slum, La Saline. For many years he has been at odds with the official hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and especially the extremely reactionary Haitian mirror of that hierarchy. The Church has tried many times to silence Aristide, including expelling him from his order, the Salesians. In 1988 paramilitary gangs burned down St. Jean Bosco. The Church asked him to resign his priesthood when he assumed the presidency, but he refused. He is not a defrocked priest, as the North American media has erroneously reported, but he obviously despises the doctrinaire Pope John Paul II and the reactionary hierarchy of the Church, saying that the people no long buy the "package" that the Vatican is trying to sell (1990, p. 21).

His first book is in the form of a letter to his brothers and sisters in Latin America "who have struggled for the liberation of our peoples" (1990, p. 3). Aristide wants to lift the mystery of Haiti and unite it with the other peoples in the southern hemisphere. The book also contains several sermons and speeches by Aristide.

The books clearly illustrate that Aristide has a close identification with the suffering in Haiti; he writes that this "is a story not of one man, but of a people, my people" (1990, p. 16). And he clearly identifies the struggle of the people in Haiti with the struggles of the powerless everywhere, especially in Latin America, writing, for example, "Here in Haiti, we consider every attack against you an attack against us, just as every injury or death that we suffer in our dark corner of the world is a death or injury that you feel, too" (1990, p. 47).

In an often quoted metaphor Aristide writes about how "the rich of my country, a tiny percentage of our population, sit at a vast table covered in white damask and overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen and countrywomen are crowded under that table, hunched over in the dirt and starving" (1990, p. 9). He predicts that "one day the people under that table will rise up in righteousness, and knock the table of privilege over, and take what rightfully belongs to them" (1990, p. 9). He sees himself as part of that historic turning of the tables. Active in human rights movements for many years, Aristide has an obvious and perhaps volatile appeal to many segments of the Haitian population, especially the peasantry and the urban poor.

Nevertheless, members of the elite run the governments in Haiti, and despite the early and heroic independence of Haiti from France--and from slavery--the attitude of the elite classes of Haiti has traditionally been a colonial one. Although nativism, negritude, and the increase in the use of Creole have made all Haitians more aware of their similarities, tension continues to exist between the elites and the rural and urban poor. With few profitable land holdings to support them, members of this very small urban elite group have traditionally used the government and its authority to tax as a source of personal income. Such a perception of government on the part of the elite has worked against the conception of public office as a public trust and even against the idea of social responsibility.

In contrast, the Haitian masses have for almost two centuries been seemingly satisfied with their small plot of land and have expected nothing better from the government than to be left alone. Haiti, then, may be regarded as a predatory state run by an elite class that extorts its living from the masses. The institutional structures of government do not operate for the benefit of the people as a whole. Directly and indirectly, members of the elite depend on the government to make their living. The political repression seen in the succession of arrests, torture, and gross violations of human rights in Haiti represents the efforts of the elite to maintain itself economically at the direct expense of the poor. Their loss of power would result not only in the loss of control and prestige but also in the loss of income.

The series of military coups after the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February 1986 can be seen as an expected jostling for position by the elites in this land of scarce resources. What was really quite unusual was the legitimate election held in December 1990--an election that the Haitian elites never wanted but that was unavoidable given the international spotlight at the time. In this election, monitored by more than 400 international observers including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency in a landslide of 67 percent of the estimated 75 percent of the two million registered voters who cast ballots. His election raised expectations both in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. For example, at Aristide's inauguration Jamaica's prime minister said that he sensed "a very great moment in Caribbean history after all the generations of struggle and tyranny."

It was not to be. Just 236 days after his February 7, 1991, inauguration the army ousted Aristide in an extremely bloody coup. In sickening detail Farmer recounts the September 30 coup that put Raoul Cedras and his brutal buddies into power and that resulted in the slaughter of over a thousand Aristide supporters from the slums of Port-au-Prince (pp. 182-189). In his own recounting of the coup, Aristide writes, "We leave the palace as prisoners, headed for the army general headquarters. Cedras is there. . . Smart and sprightly in the uniform of his high rank, he is smiling, calm, even cheerful and condescending. He tells me plainly, with a glowing countenance: 'From now on, I am the president.' Eight of my companions are tortured and beaten by the soldiers. Cedras 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. . . . The pressure applied by the democratic countries wins the day: I will leave, finally, on the plane sent by Carlos Andrez, the president of Venezuela" (1993, p. 158) . The Organization of American States declared the new regime to be illegitimate, and in November 1991 the United States imposed an embargo on Haiti demanding that the army allow a democratically elected government to take its place. Aristide lived since his ouster first in Venezuela and then mostly in the United States negotiating with the U.S. government, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and various power brokers in Haiti for his return. And on October 15, 1994, Aristide returned--under the watchful eye of the U.S. military--to an extraordinarily jubilant welcome from the Haitian masses as their rightful president.

Aristide began this arduous journey to the presidency 37 years before his inauguration on February 7, 1991. The son of relatively wealthy rural Haitians and greatly influenced by his grandfather, who apparently had a well-tuned sense of justice and exploitation, Aristide spent most of his time in Port-au-Prince in a school run by the Salesian priests, primarily from France and Belgium. In 1966 he entered the Salesian seminary in Cap-Haitien. His first internship was in the Dominican Republic.

From 1979 to 1982 he studied biblical theology in Israel. After a few months back in Haiti he was sent to Montreal by the Salesians. In January 1985 he returned to Haiti after three years of graduate study in Montreal where he had been regarded as a scholar of great potential. His commitment to liberation theology, however, continued to get him into trouble with the Church, and the Salesian order expelled him in December 1988. In October 1990 he announced his candidacy for the presidency. The first accusation that I saw that Aristide is a communist appeared in print the next month.


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