The little priest who became a bloody dictator like the one he once despised

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The Independent US

There was a time, 20 years ago, when anyone wishing to come to grips with the grotesque poverty and fitful violence of Haiti under the crumbling Duvalier dictatorship would have been itching to meet Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Back then, he was known as “le petit pretre”, the little priest, a man whose modest stature belied a lion-hearted courage in denouncing social and political injustices.

At the Salesian church of St Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince where, in the company of impoverished children, cripples and beggars, he quietly preached his message of revolution and empowerment for the poor. He cut an odd figure, with his gaunt face, his goggle glasses and his strange mixture of self-effacement, populist charisma and fierce erudition.

In the early 1980s, he was forced into exile after denouncing Baby Doc Duvalier’s violent repression of the Haitian masses and calling for an end to “this regime where the donkeys do all the work and the horses prance in the sunshine”. In 1985, shortly before Duvalier’s fall, he returned to plead for a new Haiti that would be evangelical, popular and socialist.

As the Duvalier regime gave way to an unstable period of military coups and tentative stabs as electoral democracy, he was the target of countless assassination attempts, including one terrifying assault on St Jean Bosco in 1988 in which a paramilitary gang wearing red armbands shot and hacked their way through the congregation, killing 13 people and wounding 77.

Throughout it all, Aristide never wavered. “Tout moun se moun,” he preached in Creole. Every human being is a human being. The masses loved him for it, and together they founded a movement called Lavalas, the flood. By 1990 he was the new president, and the great new hope for the most corrupt, most dysfunctional, most desperately impoverished nation state in the western hemisphere.

Fast-forward to the present, and Aristide the “petit pretre” is barely recognisable. He has, in many respects, become the very thing he used to despise: an autocratic political leader, seemingly intent on enriching himself and his inner circle, while resorting to gangsterism and repressive violence to enforce his will and counter all signs of dissent.

Haiti’s poverty has only deepened under his rule, while the democracy he promised to bring remains no more than an empty shell, a mechanism for holding elections that has itself broken down repeatedly while failing to create even the most basic democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary or even a functioning parliament.

The tragedy is that Aristide has not only alienated many, if not most, of those who started out as his most enthusiastic supporters. He has also created a monster he can no longer control, and Haiti is now in the grip of a full-scale series of gang turf wars, compounded by the reappearance of some of the worst elements of the old military hierarchy who have stated their intention to seize the country by force.

For Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, one of his most ardent erstwhile followers, Aristide is now “nothing but a political cadaver who will pass like garbage through the history of Haiti”. A couple of years ago, another early Lavalas militant called Charles René committed suicide and left a note saying: “I am exiting the stinking sewage. I am leaving behind the nausea.” Such expressions of revulsion are far from uncommon.

Visiting Aristide is now the privilege of just a few. Admittedly, it is an electic crowd that he admits through the wedding-cake white portals of the presidential palace, encompassing everyone from foreign ambassadors to gang leaders from the slums with whom he periodically exchanges favours. But the image he projects is no longer that of a man of the people.

When the foreign press was invited in a few days ago, he had them crammed at one end of a reception room, while he sat regally at the other end of a long wooden conference table. Two rows of 12 empty chairs separated him from his interlocutors, who were obliged to stand throughout. Even Aristide’s chief of staff was obliged to stand at a noticeable distance by a side door, leaving the president completely alone before the backdrop of twin Haitian flags.

The intention was clearly to exude authority, in an office he runs a considerable risk of losing in the coming days and weeks. Sure enough, Aristide sought to act the part of the stern father as he denounced the “lies” the world was telling about Haiti and sought to paint his political adversaries as terrorists bent on subverting the will of a peace-loving, non-violent people.

Unfortunately for him, it was all miserably unconvincing, not least because that very day’s news reported how pro-Aristide thugs were brandishing guns and burning down the houses of suspected opponents in the restive north. And the set-up created other, less flattering reverberations. Aristide looked isolated, even abandoned, at the other end of the table, his diminutive stature only underscoring the impression that he was drowning in the very grandeur of his surroundings.

It is hard to overstate the bitter disappointment Haitians feel about the way things have turned out. In 1990, Aristide seemed a providential, almost messianic figure in a country subjected to almost unceasing political violence and external meddling – notably from the United States -- over its 200-year-old history. That initial hope, though, was snuffed out by a military coup after just seven months. Aristide was forced into exile, and the killing resumed under a singularly unsavoury paramilitary creation of the CIA called FRAPH.

An undaunted Aristide then seemed messianic all over again in 1994, when he returned to the country with the backing of 20,000 US troops. With the Clinton administration’s help, he not only defanged the Haitian military, he disbanded them altogether. He had the goodwill of the world, the overwhelming support of his own electorate, plentiful funds from the international aid agencies to breathe life into Haiti’s moribund economy – in short, everything the leader of an impoverished small country could dream of. And yet, it all went horribly wrong.

“Aristide could have been the Haitian Mandela,” one of the most seasoned foreign observers of Haiti, the resident French photographer Chantal Regnault, remarked to me in Port-au-Prince last week. “He had all the cards in his hand in 1994, but he completely blew it.”

Understanding exactly how it all fell apart is a complex business. Part of it can be ascribed to Aristide’s uncompromising temperament and lack of political training. Especially in the early days, he was not good at listening to advice or heeding warning signs. Too often, he opted for a politics of personal vendetta against his enemies instead of developing a consensus approach to the future direction of the country.

Part of it, too, can be chalked up to the precariousness of Aristide’s position for much of his tenure. Having started out by making enemies of the military and the Haitian bourgeoisie, he has continued to be despised and threatened by them, with elements of the US foreign policy establishment frequently joining the chorus of disapproval as well. Under the circumstances, a touch of paranoia is not, perhaps, entirely surprising.

Part of it, too, was the rapacious, Hobbesian nature of Haitian politics – a direct consequence of the hunger literally gnawing at large swaths of the population and the inherent instability it creates in any political structure. Everyone is out for themselves, from the politicians down to the masses, and everyone needs protection.

Allegiances are fickle, and interests groups are shockingly easy to buy off or even coax into acts of violence. There is no professional class to speak of. In the end, any impulse to civic altruism gives way to a more elemental urge to grab whatever you can as quickly as possible.

The Haitian American academic Robert Fatton calls this “la politique du ventre”, the politics of the belly, and suggests that Aristide was pushed down the road towards corruption and criminality for much the same reasons as his predecessors. It’s worth remembering that Francois Duvalier, the notorious Papa Doc, started his career as a country doctor promising a brighter future for the hungry masses; in short order he turned into “the horror of the hemisphere” who killed 50,000 people in 14 years.

“The tragedy of Haiti’s systemic foundation is that it literally eats the decency and humanity of perfectly honest men and women,” Fatton writes in his recent book Haiti’s Predatory Republic, “transforming them into grands mangeurs (big eaters) – a rapacious species of officeholders who devour public resources, for their exclusive private gain.”

There were those who spotted disturbing tendencies in Aristide from the earliest days, worrying that he derived a little too much pleasure from the attention he received whenever he stirred up class resentments in his Sunday sermons.

Already in those days, there were stories of him encouraging slum kids to go out and kill his enemies; the Salesians disowned him after hearing that his supporters had been encouraged to lay down their machetes on the altar of his church.

Some of these stories were no doubt disinformation encouraged and enthusiastically repeated by a US embassy highly suspicious of his anti-capitalist, anti-American rhetoric. By the time Aristide was in power and struggling to avert his first military coup, however, his flirtation with violence was open and, to many ears, deeply shocking. Just days before he was overthrown in 1991, he boasted about how much he enjoyed the smell of “necklacing” – the immolation of political enemies with petrol and a burning tyre.

Aristide underwent another significant transformation during his years in exile. He left the priesthood - getting married and starting a family while he was about it - and slowly abandoned many of the founding ideals of his youth to win international support for his return. He had to cut deals with the United States, the World Bank and the IMF; old enemies all.

Back in Haiti, he quickly made clear he was interested in power not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. When the constitution obliged him to vacate the presidency in 1997, he handed it off to his prime minister, René Préval, and continued to control events from behind the scenes.

For two years, he and Préval refused to approve the formation of a government and so ruled by decree. It was in this period that armed pro-Aristide gangs began to appear in the urban slums, and that drug-running and kidnapping rackets became rampant.

By the time of the 2000 elections, international aid agencies were becoming alarmed that up to 70 per cent of their money was simply lining the pockets of elected officials, leaving too little over to complete the projects it was intended for.

One of Aristide’s leading champions turned bitter critic, the enormously influential radio journalist Jean Dominique, was murdered just a few weeks before the vote. Aristide and his Lavalas party won by a landslide, but it felt like a hollow victory. International observers found widespread evidence of fraud in the parliamentary vote, a cue that the Americans and the European Union took as an excuse to cut off all further aid to Haiti.

From there it has been a rapid descent downhill. The opposition, backed enthusiastically by Port-au-Prince’s university students, began orchestrating big street demonstrations that were then disrupted by the “chimeres”, as Aristide’s thugs became known. The international community cried foul about some of the most uncontrolled of the chimere leaders, forcing Aristide to crack down on them and risk losing their allegiance.

In Gonaives, where the current rebellion first started two weeks ago, Aristide’s chief enforcer was first arrested, then sprung from prison, then allowed to roam free for a year, then brutally murdered. A similar showdown in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s largest slum, has turned another heavily armed gang against the president.

And so it goes around the country. The opposition likes to accuse Aristide of operating a sinister, authoritarian reign of terror, but in truth that grossly overstates his reach. As one well-placed western observer in Haiti put it: “The problem is not that Aristide controls everything. It is that he controls nothing.”

The country has become prey to former death squad commanders returning from exile, armed street gangs, and every conceivable stripe of criminal, racketeer and drug smuggler. There are no good outcomes in this scenario.

Back in 1988, the author Amy Wilentz asked Aristide who he really was. He answered: “You’ll see.” His enigmatic response was supposed to hint at a kind of hope, at a time when Haiti really thought it could break free of its oppressive past and start anew. Sixteen years on, however, the country has seen exactly who Aristide is, and the only immediate prospect is unending despair.