Jean-Bertrand Aristide

The Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide (born 1953) was elected president of Haiti by a landslide in 1990 but then was deposed by a military coup in 1991. A radical populist, acclaimed by the masses and feared by Haiti's power elite, he remained in exile until 1994 when a U.S. military occupation of Haiti restored him to power.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born on July 15, 1953, in Douyon, a small town along Haiti's southern arm. Orphaned as an infant, he was raised by priests of the Society of St. Francis de Sales of the Roman Catholic Church. The Salesian Order, with European and American houses and members, focused in Haiti on the spiritual instruction of poor and orphaned children. As a dependent of the Salesians, Aristide received his early education in their parochial schools and later attended their seminary in Haiti and the University of Haiti. He was sent to Israel, Egypt, Britain, and Canada for biblical and other learning.

Aristide was ordained a priest in 1982. He also earned a graduate degree in psychology at the University of Montreal. He learned to read and speak French, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Italian, German, and Portuguese in addition to his native Creole. Aristide wrote poetry and composed hymns on his guitar.

In 1988 Aristide was expelled from the Salesian order for preaching too politically and for what Aristide called his "fidelity to the poor." He had been warned by the Vatican and by his local bishop to preach less radically and to cease inflaming his parishioners against the Haitian state. From his ordination, Aristide had condemned Haiti's absence of democracy, arguing from his pulpit in the Church of St. Jean Bosco in the poorest part of Port-au-Prince that only a spiritual and political cleansing could save the country.

For all but the first five years of Aristide's life, Haiti had been ruled by the harsh family dictatorship of Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and by Jean-Paul (Baby Doc) Duvalier, his son. Human rights violations were legion. Ordinary Haitians were ceaselessly intimidated by paramilitary thugs known as the tonton macoutes. The ruling family and the state were synonymous and preyed viciously on the people. Corruption was rife.

Aristide's antagonism to the dictatorship grew out of his religious convictions and his empathy with the sufferings of the Haitian people. He may have foreseen that the Duvalier dictatorship was crumbling; after months of popular protest, some of which was stimulated by Aristide's preachings, in early 1986 Baby Doc and his entourage fled Haiti for France.

The military juntas that succeeded Baby Doc also oppressed the poor. The regimes of both General Prosper Avril and Lieutenant General Henri Namphy were criticized from Aristide's pulpit. In retaliation, the tonton macoutes attacked the Church of St. Jean Bosco, killing 13 members of Aristide's congregation in 1988, two weeks before he was expelled from the Salesian order. The Roman Catholic Church ordered Aristide to Rome. But that "transfer" resulted in one of the largest street demonstrations in Haitian history, with tens of thousands of Haitians angrily blocking Aristide's departure by air.

Aristide had not been defrocked, despite his expulsion from the order. After 1988 he continued to work with the desperately poor of Port-au-Prince by running a halfway house for street children and by opening a medical clinic.

When the United Nations, the United States, and the Organization of American States finally persuaded the military men of Haiti to hold elections, Aristide was neither an early nor an expected candidate. The front runner was Marc Bazin, an experienced international civil servant, but there were many other well-known men of substance, as well as a leader of the macoutes, who also tendered their candidacies.

The character of the race for the presidency changed dramatically, however, when Aristide decided to run, only a few months before the poll in December 1990. His act was widely regarded as quixotic and sacrificial. But his messianic pledges of redemptive justice for victims of dictatorship and violence struck a responsive chord among the poor, nearly all of whom would be voting for the first time in the nation's only full and free election. He also spoke harshly against the United States, both as a supporter of the Duvaliers and as an exploitative force in the world.

A slight, wispy person, Aristide overwhelmingly vanquished his electoral foes. He won 67 percent of the popular vote, but his Lavalas (Avalanche) Party, which had had little time to organize, took only a comparatively small percentage of the seats in the Haitian parliament. Before Aristide was ousted by military men led by General Raoul Cedras on September 30, 1991, the new president had alarmed the commercial and old-line ruling classes of Haiti by preaching violence against macoutes and leading purges of persons suspected of being secret Duvalierists. His constructive accomplishments in office had been few, particularly since his hold on parliament had been ineffectual.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup the United States, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations embargoed Haitian exports and attempted to bar petroleum and other imports. But those efforts were only partially successful, and the masses suffered from economic sanctions much more than the military junta.

All three groups attempted to broker a settlement between Aristide, living first in Venezuela and later in the United States, and Cedras and his accomplices. Several agreements unraveled when Aristide changed his mind; others fell apart because the military leaders were endlessly suspicious of Aristide's real intentions.

In mid-1993 the Clinton administration and the United Nations persuaded Aristide and Cedras to meet near New York and to conclude an agreement that would return Aristide to the Haitian presidency for the final 27 months of his single, non-renewable term and provide an amnesty for the military. But Haiti's power elite refused to implement the agreement. President Clinton had over 23,000 U.S. troops sent to Haiti in what was termed "Restore Democracy." The task of this military mission was to ensure the safe and successful transition to reinstate Aristide to power. On December 17, 1995, the Haitian presidential election took place and Rene Preval was elected to succeed Aristide.

Further Reading on Jean-Bertrand Aristide

For a sense of what Haiti was like during Aristide's formative years, read Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (1989). Amy Wilentz also translated and edited Aristide's writings as In the Parish of the Poor (1990). Aristide's own Autobiography was translated from the French by Linda M. Maloney (1990). Aristide in exile is described by Catherine Manegold in "Innocent Abroad: Jean-Bertrand Aristide" in the New York Times Magazine (May 1, 1994). For Papa Doc and before, see Robert I. Rotberg, Haiti: The Politics of Squalor (1971). Only sketchy journalism describes the brief period of Aristide's ascendancy.