The Miami Herald
Mon, Mar. 01, 2004
Low-key lawyer takes spotlight

A low profile jurist, who was appointed to Haiti's highest court by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is thrust into the international spotlight as the nation's new leader.


The man who is now Haiti's interim president, Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, is largely unknown by those who closely follow the Caribbean nation's turbulent politics.

Alexandre, who is said to be in his 60s, took the oath of office Sunday morning, hours after embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left the country aboard a jet.

According to Haiti's 1987 constitution, Alexandre was next in the presidential succession line, but with no Parliament to approve his appointment as required, little name recognition, and near anarchy on the streets, his hold on power is tenuous at best, analysts say.

Alexandre also does not have the support of parts of the political opposition, which say he is too close to Aristide.

''He has authority on paper, which is not reflected by his actual recognition in the country,'' said Dan Erikson, Director of Caribbean Programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue.

'Everybody's asking all of a sudden, `Who is this guy?' ''

Robert Fatton Jr., a native of Haiti who is chairman of the politics department at the University of Virginia, said of Alexandre: ``He was really kind of an unknown quantity until this morning.''

After his swearing in, the new leader attended a press conference alongside U.S. Ambassador James Foley and Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, where the trio discussed preliminary plans for a transitional government.

''The task will not be an easy one,'' Alexandre told reporters. ``Haiti is in crisis. . . . It needs all its sons and daughters. No one should take justice into their own hands.''

The Organization of American States issued a statement supporting Alexandre's ascension.

Alexandre, who was appointed as Haiti's top judge by Aristide about a year and a half ago after spending about a decade on the court, has spent most of his career in law.

For about 25 years, he worked as an attorney at the Port-au-Prince firm Cabinet Lamarre, which has since shut down.

There, he handled cases that included business contracts and divorce settlements, his associates said.

He was brought up by his uncle, former Prime Minister Martial Celestin.

Some described the low-key jurist and father of three as honest and with the leadership skills necessary to run a caretaker government.

But others said his links to Aristide will hinder his ability to build bridges with the opposition.

Members of the opposition have complained that during his tenure on the court, he did not assert strongly enough the court's independence from Aristide.

''He lacks the character to lead the country in this time of transition,'' said Gerard Philippeaux, a South Florida resident who closely follows Haitian politics and attended Saint Louis de Gozague, a high school where the judge taught in the 1970s.

``An appointee of Aristide, he never fought for the independence of the judiciary, which as the head of the Supreme Court he is responsible for that branch of the government.''

Alex Dupuy, a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut who specializes in Haitian issues, said Alexandre will have to tread lightly to hold onto power.

''He was a supporter of Aristide, but that doesn't mean that he is going to necessarily put Aristide people in power,'' he said.

``I imagine they will draw broadly. We can probably expect a great deal of infighting between the parties to see who will be part of the government.''

The head of Aristide's Lavalas party, Jonas Petit, told The Herald that Alexandre was not a member.

Reached by phone at their home in the middle-class Nazon neighborhood, Alexandre's wife, in a brief conversation, said her husband was summoned to Haiti's presidential palace late Saturday night.

Within hours, the judge was thrust into the international spotlight.

Associates say Alexandre is probably uncomfortable in his new position.

''He likes to be in the background,'' said Hans Lamarre, whose deceased father owned Cabinet Lamarre, where Alexandre spent most of his career.

``He is not very political. He is a very principled guy.''

Lamarre said Alexandre does not carry the trappings of wealth, despite his years as an attorney employed by many of Haiti's elite.

''He has a good financial situation, but we can't say he was rich. He would always buy second or third-hand cars. He put money in his children, sending them to medical school,'' Lamarre said in a phone interview from Canada.

``He never went to a fancy restaurant in Haiti.''

This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.