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
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
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. …