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Looking back to the future.

In February 1991 Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti's first legitmately elected president after nearly 200 years of independence. He swept to power on a wave of optimism for the future, but within months he was the victim of a military coup. This month, ten years to the day and following controversial elections, he will inaugurated a second time.

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE PROJECT work in Haiti today is in front of the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, near the statue of the slave said to have launched the country's 1791 revolution by blowing on a conch shell. As workers and machines move stones and earth to make a new plaza, the large, freshly spruced up, triple-domed palace gleams a brilliant white in the sunshine.

On a balcony of this same palace, dictator Francois `Papa Doc' Duvalier stood in 1963, dressed as the fearsome voodoo deity Baron Samedi in top hat and tails, and proclaimed himself "the personification of the Haitian fatherland". It is the palace mentioned in the revised version of the Lord's Prayer that Duvalier composed for his subjects: "Our Doc, who art in the National Palace for life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations." Here too, Duvalier's son and successor, Jean-Claude -- `Baby Doc' -- reportedly threw a champagne-and-cocaine farewell party in 1986 before he boarded a flight for France and a life in exile.

In this same palace, a fiery young priest from the slums was inaugurated on 7 February 1991 as Haiti's first legitimately elected president in nearly 200 years of independence. Jean-Bertrand Aristide had captured the imagination of the poverty-stricken would be different. After the ceremony, former US president Jimmy Carter wrote: "1 was greatly impressed by the outpouring of support for the new president and his genuine interest in leading his people toward democracy and social justice. The support he has received from the army is also encouraging." Several months later Aristide was overthrown in a coup d'etat.

This month, a decade to the day after his first swearing-in, Aristide will be inaugurated again. A lot has happened in those ten years, but in Haiti, the more water that flows under the bridge, the less things seem to change.


As you fly into this tiny Caribbean nation the plane descends over the country from north to south. Out the window the isle de la Tortue is visible off the north coast, then the short, stubby northern peninsula, curving to join the narrow mainland. The plane flies over the bay of Port-au-Prince parallel to Highway One that runs along the coast; then one sees the squalid city in the bright sunlight, sprawling up the slopes surrounding a bay that is dotted with tiny, rickety fishing boats. Haiti's name means `mountainous land', and the almost bare mountains seem to rise directly out of the sea. The rivers are a rich brown colour, choked with runoff from unchecked erosion on the denuded slopes.

It wasn't always like this, and a visitor is tempted to wish Haiti could return to the way it was. In his 1938 classic history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, The Black Jacobins, Trinidadian writer CLR James conjured up a vision of what life in France's richest colony was like in the 18th century: "Thousands of small, scrupulously tidy coffee-trees rose on the slopes of the hills, and the abrupt and precipitous mountain-sides were covered to the summits with the luxuriant tropical undergrowth and precious hardwood forests of San Domingo. The traveller from Europe was enchanted at his first glimpse of this paradise, in which the ordered beauty of agriculture and the prodigality of Nature competed equally for his surprise and admiration."


Today, three quarters of Haiti's eight million people are peasant farmers, eking out a life on tiny plots of depleted soil in the countryside. After the 1791 revolution, the new leaders expropriated the large colonial plantations and shared them among the former slaves. Coffee and sugarcane have historically been important export crops, but now, most Haitians have to work hard just to grow enough maize, rice, beans, and fruit to feed their families. Malnutrition is rife, as are serious diseases such as malaria and AIDS. In the early 1980s, when AIDS first became known, many Americans believed it started in Haiti.

In Port-au-Prince, the poor crowd into slums such as Cite Soleil and La Saline. It was in these slums that Aristide first gained popularity in the second half of the 1980s by telling the residents that it was wrong for them to he desperately poor while a tiny, mostly lighter-skinned elite lived in luxury. "If I ask a rich Haitian to help me, he will say bad things to me," explains Edner, a young man studying under a street lamp one evening in the town of Cap Haitien, because his home lacks electricity. "`You are a dog,' he will say. `You are a pig. My children can go to the United States hut you cannot.'"

Aristide, whose peasant father died when he was three months old and whose mother struggled as a produce saleslady, not only shared this deep-seated resentment; he urged people to do something about it. "We all live under a system so corrupt," he said in his sermons, "that to ask for a plate of rice and beans every day for every man, woman and child is to preach a revolution." In the wake of the popular overthrow of Baby Doc in 1986 and the string of interim dictators who followed, Aristide rode a wave of hope to a landslide victory in Haiti's first genuinely free election.

The wave of hope, however, soon turned into a tidal wave of disappointment when Aristide was deposed. The coup that toppled him, led by Lt-Col Raoul Cedras -- an officer Aristide himself had promoted, on US advice, to head the army -- and funded by members of the historically ascendant mulatto elite, ushered in three years of agony for Haiti. Tens of thousands of desperate `boat people' fled the vindictive regime and the harsh effects of a US-led economic embargo that followed the coup), paying for passage in wooden sailboats bound for Florida. Many of them drowned. US authorities intercepted others and interned them in camps at the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before returning them to Haiti.

With hindsight, no one argues that the US embargo had any positive effect. What finally rid Haiti of the Cedras junta were 20,000 US troops, who entered the country unopposed in October 1994 following excruciating negotiations between the Clinton administration, the junta, and Aristide, who had become an unlikely and reluctant US client. The Clinton administration didn't like Aristide, but the tide of Florida-bound boat people would not ebb until he returned to Haiti. As a condition of his return, Aristide agreed to step down after his five-year term ended in 1996, even though he had spent more than three of those five years in exile. So he arranged for an ally, Rene Preval, to keep the presidential seat warm, and bided his time.


On November 26 2000 Aristide was elected president of Haiti for the second time. This time, though, he stood effectively unopposed, and his party claims he won 91.6 per cent of the vote. (Sir John Compton, the head of the Caribbean Community observer mission, says only 15 to 20 per cent of eligible voters turned out.) In Haiti today, just over six years after Aristide returned from exile courtesy of the US military, few people criticise him or the ruling Fanmi Lavalas party, except among trusted acquaintances. The streets of Port-au-Prince are deserted after dark and many people feel nostalgic for what they remember as stability and security under Baby Doc. Those who do speak out call Aristide, the man who promised to liberate the poor and change things in Haiti, and his party dictatorial and corrupt, fomenters of violence and terror. They say he has become what he said he would rid the country of. Unexplained bombings and seemingly random shootings occurred during the week preceeding the polls, then mysteriously ended immediately afterwards.

But Aristide is arguably--or at least presumably -- still popular among Haiti's poor because he encourages the belief that together, he and they might end the long reign of privilege and injustice -- and because they have no other good option. "Alone we are weak," goes one of the most common refrains in his speeches. "Together we are strong." Haiti's poor "see him as their only hope," says a resident foreigner.

Aristide faces the thankless task of satisfying both his country's poor and the US, without whom he would still be in exile. Outside Haiti he is celebrated by some, and reviled or thought suspect by others, because of his staunch and eloquent critique of global capitalism. In his book Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a path for the poor in the age of globalization, he condemns "a poverty of spirit which has made a religion of the market and its invisible hand."

Virtually all foreign aid was suspended in protest against irregularities in legislative elections last May and, given the questionable circumstances of Aristide's own election victory, the outside world's recognition of his regime will be at best delayed and tacit. "The Americans brought this man back with 20,000 troops in 1994, and now he risks being isolated," says a European diplomat. "Quite ironic, really. That's how Haiti goes."

Aristide has learned the hard way that paranoia and Machiavellian methods are necessary for anyone to gain and then keep power in Haiti. The preaching firebrand from the slums has been replaced by a man who rarely leaves his house in an upmarket suburb, where he receives visitors from all factions, in order to keep them all guessing.

In the absence of a legitimate election or effective freedom of speech, it is impossible to measure Aristide's true popularity. He and his party "have a lot of people with them," asserts a supporter. "That is a reality. Whatever way they run the election, they would win." James, an emaciated-looking 18-year-old who lives in Cite Soleil and hangs out at the airport looking for journalists to assist, says in broken English: "If Aristide come in in 2001, I think he stay until 2100, something like that. Because he do lots of things to make the people love him."

But an opponent who claims the ruling party stole a seat front him in last May's legislative polls says flatly: "If there were genuine elections in Haiti, Lavalas (Aristide's party) would not win."

Aristide promised to change Haiti's deeply entrenched traditions of political terror, economic exploitation, and social contempt. But that was a lot to promise in a country that has been polarised for so long, and in attempting to be at once a prophet and a politician, he found it difficult to be either successfully. "He was a priest, but he no longer has the same heart," says the disappointed candidate. "He wanted money, and he loved power too much."

As Aristide has discovered, the obstacles to change are formidable, and include not only fierce resistance from the elite, but widespread fatalism and cynicism among the poor. "All the presidents take money for projects and put it in their pocket," says one young man. Reminded of Aristide's claim to be a friend of the poor, he replies with one word: "Bluff."

Because they were robbed of it last time, Aristide and his allies feel that power is rightfully theirs. And, in Haiti, unless you have all of the power, you have none. Mwen se sel kok ki kapab chante, goes a Haitian saying. "I am the only cock who can crow."

"It took me a little while to realise," admitted journalist and Aristide supporter Amy Wilentz in her 1989 book The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier, "that if you wait long enough in Haiti, and really not that long, the tyranny and violence is likely to return, and that a people's victory is not always, in the end, what it seems to he in the beginning."

Now that Aristide has returned to the presidency, it remains to be seen whether he can break a 200-year-old cycle or whether he becomes another victim of it.

Shadow of history looms large

Between 1791 and 1804, the slaves of the colony of St Domingue struggled to overthrow their French masters, in what historian Franklin W Knight called "the most thorough case study of revolutionary change anywhere in the history of the modern world". Prompted in part By the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian revolution cut to the heart of the social polarisation and economic exploitation of the New World by European colonial powers.

Haiti was the second independent country in the Americas after the USA. The only standard the new rulers had to follow was what they had experienced under the French. "Since Columbus set foot on this island in 1492 there has been only one model of government -- absolute dictatorship," says a Western observer. "Dictatorships are a comfortable concept in Haiti," says another, "it's much easier to let somebody else take care of things." In Haiti, the shadow of history looms large.

In the early years Haiti's independence lacked support from other countries. The revolution challenged slave owners and the USA did not recognise Haiti's independence until after the Civil War ended slavery in the USA.

The reign of Francois `Papa Doc' Duvalier

The dictatorship of Francois `Papa Doc' Duvalier (1957-1971) has become a byword for tyranny. Graham Greene's 1966 novel The Comedians eerily captured the country's agony and special atmosphere under Papa Doc. He also wrote the foreword to Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes. According to Greene, the only way to examine Duvalier's reign was in stages.

At first there was hope that Papa Doc "would not prove a much worse ruler than many others in Haiti's cruel history." But after two Florida sheriffs with six men tried to overthrow him in 1958 the regime turned nasty.

"The second stage, perhaps accelerated by fear and insecurity, saw the establishment of the police state," he wrote. "When Duvalier was unable to trust the army, he built up the militia, the palace guard and the Tonton Macoutes. Then began his long and clever blackmail of the United States." The Cold War was on and the USA needed votes in the UN. Duvalier extorted money and support as the price of his vote. After an attempt to kidnap his children there was "the stage of unlimited terror". Finally came "megalomania marked by Papa Doc's `election' as President for Life."
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Title Annotation:Jean-Bertrand Aristide, president of Haiti
Author:Casey, Ethan
Geographic Code:5HAIT
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Previous Article:HAITI FACT FILE.
Next Article:From GEOGRAPHICAL's February archives.

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