In 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a parish priest working in the slums, received over two-thirds of the vote in Haiti's first free and fair presidential elections monitored by the UN. His election was unprecedented in a land that most recently had been ruled by a series of military regimes and the thirty-year Duvalier dictatorship. During Aristide's presidency the national coffers registered a positive balance for the first time, and the number of documented human rights abuses plummeted. But the traditional powers that control Haiti-the elite, the military, the United Stateswere wary of his radical politics, and only seven months into his term a military coup sent Aristide into exile. By the time he was returned to Haiti three years later in October 1994, on the heels of the U.S.-led UN invasion, he had been pressured to substitute many of his political and economic policies for the neo-liberal recommendations of international lenders and the IMF. Since Aristide stepped down as president in February 1996, he has continued to work with the poor at his newly created Aristide Foundation for Democracy. Despite the chronic political controversy that surrounds him, he is widely expected to become president again in the year 2001. He was interviewed in March 1998 in New York City by Catherine Orenstein.
ORENSTEIN: I know that you went to school in Israel for a time, and that you speak Hebrew. This interview is for TIKKUN, so I thought I'd start by asking you how the Haitian experience and the Jewish experience can inform each other. For example, I was thinking of the parallel between the Jewish refugees whom the United States turned away in 1939, and the boats of Haitian refugees who were also turned away from our shores during Haiti's coup years.
ARISTIDE: First of all, I'd like to say thank you to those of Jewish faith for this opportunity to express solidarity with you on behalf of the Haitian people. There is a connection between the Jewish past and our present, in the sense that Jews have suffered in the same way that Haitians today suffer, under the same forces of racism and colonialism. When Jewish people go to the roots of their faith, they say that their God is the God of justice, and that their God is against slavery. We Haitians share that same belief. We stand on common ground: Haitians and Jews, acting from the foundations of our faith, have both fought for freedom from slavery. Jews and Haitians, no matter the country, no matter the color of the skin, no matter the religion, are in solidarity with one another for we know that our God is against slavery; and we fight together against it.
ORENSTEIN: When did you live in Israel, and what did you do there?
ARISTIDE: From 1979 to 1983, I lived in Israel as a student of theology. I was sent there to study, on a scholarship. As a student in Haiti, I had written a poem, inspired by the Bible. My professor thought it should be published. That was what began my biblical studies.
ORENSTEIN: What was the poem?
ARISTIDE: The poem was called Pou ki, which means "why?" in Haitian Kreyol. I asked why? Why do we have suffering? Why do we have people suffering from need? In light of the luxury that some people live in, I attribute this to a kind of system of economic slavery.
ORENSTEIN: In many of your speeches you've talked about the maldistribution of wealth, not only in Haiti but globally. How do you see Haiti today, particularly in light of the new neo-liberal economic policies that the Haitian Government has been pressured to implement by the U.S. and the IMF?
ARISTIDE: The huge majority of Haitian people say that the biggest problem in Haiti is the cost of living. If you open your eyes, you'll see that they are right: the cost of living has indeed become very high. People are angry and frustrated when they think about how, on December 16, 1990 [Haiti's first free elections, in which Aristide was elected], they voted for their rights, only to see that reversed. …