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 | Staff writer of 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 cliché 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
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 1996 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 Cité Soleil slum.
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.
But if his oratory was often eloquent, it could also generate a violent
spark on the emotional Haitian street. Aristide could and did inspire
mob violence. This power to rival the authorities generated so many assassination attempts that Haitians often attributed his survival to
God-given mystical Catholic or voodoo powers.
Indeed, the more Aristide was persecuted, the more he was adored by the poor.
"He had all the characteristics of an honest leader because he was a man
of the cloth in a very spiritual country," says Alice Blanchet, a
Haitian-American who worked in Aristide's presidential administration in the mid- 1990s. "He had helped mobilize the public for the ouster
of Duvalier and a series of other coup leaders."
But, says Ms. Blanchet, even back then some close to Aristide were uncomfortable
with the way he cast himself in Haitian metaphor as a
kind of messiah.
Those closest to him as far back as his parish days say now that they overlooked
his autocratic approach because he had the cloak of
democratic principle drawn close around him.
"I think he was a weak leader and we overjudged his mandate," says one
American who was close to Aristide and asked not to be
identified. "His biggest problem is he doesn't listen, he doesn't compromise, and he's an egomaniac in that regard ... he was always that
way. It wasn't like living with Gandhi.... He didn't believe in self-denial, and he wasn't spiritual in any way. He was a politician."
But, he adds, "I don't care if he loved fine clothes gold watches and swimming
pools...he was democratically elected. And no one accused
Mandela of ever being spiritual."
But Aristide rose to power because he was seen as a great hope for change
- someone very different and, having won two-thirds of the vote
in a 13-candidate election in 1990, someone with unprecedented public support. So, say those who were close to him, his peccadilloes
were overlooked - from his increasingly elaborate household compound to his tailored clothes and an increasingly domineering attitude.
"The first thing I noticed was wrong, " says Blanchet, was when she was
hired by the exiled Aristide in 1993 to work with his prime minister
back in the capital city. "Aristide wouldn't return phone calls to the prime minister ... he wouldn't even give [the prime minister] his direct
Clotilde Charlot, who worked with Aristide during his first presidency
and was part of the professional brain trust who helped him get started
in politics, says her first real surprise came on the heady day of his inauguration.
Aristide suddenly disinvited from the inaugural parade his longtime political
ally, Evans Paul, who had just become the first democratically
elected mayor of Port-au-Prince.
The president deemed him "unimportant." Ms. Charlot said it was a shockingly primitive power play.
Throughout Aristide's first interrupted presidency and the second one that'
started in January 2000, his political tactics have essentially
nixed a working parliament - and a working government. Key programs his own administrators labored to create would be inexplicably killed
by Aristide. He rejected a hard-fought privatization plan that would have created government capital on the eve of an international loan being
granted, says Blanchet. He sent an envoy to the Vatican to solicit the church's help in negotiating a coalition government, only to
announce while the envoy was still flying to Rome that this was not a mission on Aristide's behalf.
It seemed, she says, that his philosophy was to create chaos that would
allow him to keep a grip on total - though unproductive - power.
Others describe how Aristide would not even brook conversational opposition.
Vicki Butler, the wife of former Ambassador Tim Carney, recalls a breakfast
with Aristide and his Haitian-American wife, Mildred, in which
an argument ensued because Aristide suddenly wanted Ms. Butler to accept his somewhat nationalistic thesis that Haitians - who live in
the some of the world's most difficult poverty - are "happy."
The ammunition for his argument: The Swedes have a higher suicide rate than Haitians - thus Haitians must be happy.
Butler says that Aristide's distaste for compromise meant he made no progress
on Haitis' multitude of problems, from scarring
deforestation and water degradation to disease and hunger.
"The man does not understand compromise and that's the nature and [larger]
problem of Haiti." says Pastor. "It really is a case where
leadership matters so much. He could have been a Mandela but he became a Mugabe."