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Aristide: An Autobiography.

Two years ago last month, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, after only eight months in office, stood bound between his military captors, a prisoner in his own palace. Some of his companions bad been gunned down, others beaten and tortured. Soldiers were haggling over which one would have the pleasure of killing him.

Diplomatic intervention saved his life, but as the time for his scheduled return from exile closes in, it seems clear that much of the world still does not know what to make of him. Only the Haitian people do - the 70 percent of them who voted for him in December 1990, at any rate

Here is a priest who became president. His political agenda is rooted in religious impulse,a sacred vision of love and community, of an impoverished people rising to reclaim its own destiny. The mix is volatile, dangerous to its enemies, which is why the crooks, killers and connivers who rule Haiti are still trying to keep Aristide out of the country and will kill him if they can.

Like Jesus himself, Aristide has broken all the rules, confounded the ways of the world whenever he could. Indeed, many of his people look upon him as a prophet, even as what Creole speakers call the Mesiah. So far, he has been luckier than Jesus, survived more plots, more attempts on his life - so many, in fact, that some observers soar beyond the realm of mere chance into theological speculation.

What are we to make of this remarkable man? Propbet or political opportunist? Apostle of nonviolence or rabble-rousing revolutionary? Two recent books, one a new novel by Brian Moore (reviewed in NCR Aug. 27), provide at least a little insight.

Aristide is more a spiritual and political apologia than an autobiography. It was produced on the run, so to speak, during the priest's two years in exile, a hasty account in many ways, written in French with journalist Christophe Wargny, then translated into English.

All that may help to explain why so little of Aristide's intensity comes through the pedestrian prose. He is capable of much more - blood-bursts of language that transform his homilies into vivid hymns to life, as lf words were one of the polychrome taxis called tap-taps bumping through the streets of Port-au-Prince.

But at least the bare bones are here. We get a glimpse of his early life in his native village, the grandfather who instilled in him his thirst for justice, his schooling with the Salesians, his early years as a priest on the clerical fast track.

Then came the work that would consume his life. His church, St. Jean Bosco, in one of the most wretched neighborhoods of the capital, became a symbol of resistance against Duvalier and the tyrants who followed him. He quickly realized that his strength was in the people and that only the people, united in an ethic of love, could bring about their own liberation.

However naive that may sound - an "ethic of love" tends to clot like blood in the street after a blizzard of bullets - it was hardly good news to Haiti's oligarchs and military thugs who feed like spiders on the guts of the poor. The people voted for Aristide as a symbol of their deliverance; those traditional oppressors vetoed the vote. Raoul Cedras, the general Aristide had trusted to reform the military, betrayed him.

But that was not the worst of it. His own church betrayed him as well and that was the deeper personal wound. The papal nuncio stood in the street and watched as government henchmen butchered his parishioners and burned his church. Under pressure from Rome, the Salesians expelled him. Nearly every Haitian bishop worked against him. The Vatican was the only state in the world to recognize the de facto government that replaced him.

To be Christian, Aristide writes, "is to be a rebel." Religion "cannot be anything other than a battle against resignation; otherwise religion itself must be resisted." No doubt that sort of talk quivers a lot of curial belly fat.

It also generates certain ambiguities. As president, still extolling nonviolence, Aristide threatened a recalcitrant Haitian power structure with a popular uprising. An attempted coup between the time of his election and his inauguration in February 1991 failed because thousands of Aristide's supporters stormed into the streets, making it clear that the people were his surest shield, the only weapon he could rely upon.

Aristide pretty much dodges the dilemma between gospel nonviolence and revolutionary strife, between the Christian rebel and tbe militant politician. There is a deeper exploration of it in Moore's novel, No Other Life (Doubleday, 223 pages, $21). Perhaps the most cogent articulation of it comes from a general who has just led a coup against Aristide's fictional counterpart, Fr. Jean-Paul "Jeannot" Cantave:

"You are responsible," the general tells Cantave. "The truth is, you have never wanted democracy in Ganae [read Haiti]. You have tried to foment a revolution, a war of the poor noirs against the rest of us. You pretend to be a priest but you are not a priest, you are a revolutionary, preaching class warfare."

That assessment is from an enemy. But even one of the priest's closest friends, Fr. Paul Michel, the novel's narrator, tells him he is responsible for the deaths of his supporters, implores him to end the killing because "It's terrible and it's working against you."

"But do I have the right to end it?" Cantave asks. "What will happen if our people give up the struggle?"

The novel does not resolve the dilemma. Nor, one suspects, has Aristide resolved it.

Toward the end of No Other Life, feigning a compromise with the coup leaders, Cantave leads a rosary in front of the cathedral, gives one last speech, then walks down the steps into the throng, is swallowed, as it were, into the belly of his people.

"No longer ask

For a Messiah," he told his people

(for Cantave, like Aristide, preaches

a kind of poetry).

"As for me

I am nothing

I came from nothing.

Today I go back

To those from whom I came,

The poor, the silent, the unknown."

"No, I am not a Messiah, and the population is same and realistic about that," writes the historical Aristide. "In our day, there is no Messiah other than the people. ... My vision of politics, like my vision of Christian faith, is fed by others and lives in community. Such a view and such a certainty will permit the people, the community, to continue without me in the future. I am, like everyone else, and perhaps more than some, called to disappear."

Once again art and reality join in an uncanny embrace.

If Aristide lives, he will write a better book. If he is killed, and if there is yet even a whiff of justice afloat the earth, the Haitian people will write it for him.

Tim McCarthy is an NCR special report writer.
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Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 29, 1993
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