Rise and Fall of a 'Haitian Mandela' ; President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Now Cornered by Popular Revolt, Once Embodied a Dream of Haitian Democracy

By Clara Germani writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rise and Fall of a 'Haitian Mandela' ; President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Now Cornered by Popular Revolt, Once Embodied a Dream of Haitian Democracy


Clara Germani writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It was a textbook moment in Jean-Bertrand Aristide's alternately troubled and glorious path from parish priest to president to, now, a pariah confronting total rejection by his country.

At a 1994 conference on military coups at the Carter Center in Atlanta, a panel of experts asked the then-exiled Haitian president what he'd learned from his own recent overthrow.

Moderator Robert Pastor recalls being astonished at Mr. Aristide's honesty: "He said, 'I won the election by too much.... I thought I didn't need to compromise and reach out to the opposition, and it ultimately provoked a coup.' "

Mr. Pastor's heart was won. "I thought, 'this guy's great. He learned a principal lesson and is willing to say it in public."

But, say legions of cynical former members of Aristide's inner circle, the president had drawn a more perverse conclusion: His mistake wasn't trying to squelch opposition; it was not succeeding in doing so.

How a man hailed as a potential Nelson Mandela for his impoverished and oppressed nation of 8 million could fall so far appears to be as much a tale of wishful thinking by desperate Haitians and the international community that backed him, say experts, as it was a tale of the old cliche that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Aristide was given that rarest of political gifts - a second chance. But, reinstalled in the presidency in October 1994 by a multinational military force, he used his resurrection to perfect an autocratic style, say even those close to him who were interviewed for this story.

Today, having infuriated, humiliated, and - some allege, killed - any once-devoted followers who crossed him, Aristide has few political allies left. Even his strongest credential - his election to a second term in 2000 - counts little as rebels gobble up territory and threaten to take the capital.

Languishing in that familiar pre-coup limbo that is a trademark of modern Haitian presidencies, Aristide is a symbol of a political culture that has been bankrupt nearly since it began as a slave revolt 200-plus years ago. But his historical image is just as a symbol of the impoverished Haitian masses he worked with as a parish priest.

In the years immediately following the 1986 ouster of the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, "Titide" - affectionate Creole for tiny Aristide - worked and preached from the St. Jean Bosco church, not far from Port-au-Prince's teaming Cite Soleil slum. [Editor's note: The original version of this story gave the wrong date for Jean-Claude Duvalier's ouster.]

He wore crisp shirts neatly tucked into dress slacks cinched hard around a tiny waist that suggested not just a vow of poverty but a vow of hunger. His slightly lopsided face was magnified by thick aviator glasses. His overall look: unassuming nerd.

But what came out of is mouth - in any of the seven languages he spoke - was powerful. His nationally broadcast masses preached liberation theology - equal parts consciousness-raising for the poor (the Vatican and US embassy termed it "class warfare"), nationalistic rhetoric eerily reminiscent of the Duvalier dynasty, and tart-tongued anti- capitalism.

Aristide was widely credited for his ability to turn proverbs and scripture into inspired Creole rhetoric - a rhetoric that seemed to transport him physically from the calm languor the Haitian heat causes to a perspiring and fiery physicality.

Bob Maguire, a professor at Trinity University in Washington who was a development worker in Haiti, recalls this Creole mastery that first emerged from the pulpit. Aristide, he says, once brought a stem of bananas to the altar during one of the 1980s military dictatorships and asked parishioners to walk up and take one. The Creole word for this clump of bananas is a homonym for the word "regime." "See how easy it is to take apart a 'regime'?" Aristide asked his congregation.

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