Aristide returns to poor who kept the faith

Click to follow
THE RETURN of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti today is not just a

triumph of a democratically elected president over a military regime but the first victory of a radical version of Christianity committed to the ending of political and social oppression.

'I'm the president now,' said a confident General Raoul Cedras to a handcuffed Father Aristide after deposing him in a coup three years ago, and smilingly asked: 'What shall I do with the priest?' A group of jeering soldiers answered 'Kill him', and General Cedras may have come to regret that he did not.

In Port-au-Prince yesterday every street showed the grip of Father Aristide on the minds of the Haitian poor. Unemployed young men were busily sweeping slum dirt roads which no amount of cleaning could transform from anything other than a rutted track. One man in Belair, the oldest quarter of the city, was trying ineffectually to sweep clean his corrugated iron shack's roof, which was made out of rubbish.

There is another side of Father Aristide's influence in the Haitian capital: there have been few lynchings, although 3,000 Aristide supporters were killed by the death-squads. For instance, in Carrefour suburb last week local people smashed the doors of a police station and took five rifles, which they handed over to US troops. They then released the policemen after removing their dark blue trousers, remnants of which were scattered in the road.

This may not last. Only some 4,000 out of 50,000 guns have been handed in. General Cedras and a few military leaders may have fled the country, but their followers have not. Many are seeking to make themselves useful and, in time, essential to the US forces. When international police monitors inspected Port-au-Prince prison the prisoners screamed abuse not at the governor but at a Haitian lieutenant accompanying the Americans whom they said was a notorious killer.

During the three years the US officially demanded Father Aristide's return it also made clear that he was a man it deeply suspected. Leaked US embassy memos portrayed him as a dangerous firebrand. He, in turn, had no doubts about America's involvement with the murderous regimes that have ruled Haiti, noting 'evil-doers have always used the army against the people, as did the cold country to our north (a frequent Aristide term for the US) when it occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. They set up the Haitian army, they trained it to work against the people'.

For the moment, despite mutual suspicion, the US and Father Aristide need each other. Only the Americans could overthrow General Cedras and only Father Aristide can prevent that overthrow turning into a bloodbath. The marriage of convenience may not last.

The second long-term consequence of Father Aristide's return will be on the Catholic Church. The intricacy and bloodiness of the battle for power in Haiti has obscured the significance - particularly in Central and Latin America - of the victory of the 'liberation theology' of which Father Aristide is the most important proponent.

He spelled out what this means when he was expelled from the Salesian order in 1988: 'The crime of which I stand accused is the crime of preaching food for all men and women. According to the authorities in my country and in Rome, this is tantamount to preaching revolution, war.' But, he added, some wars are just and war is avoidable 'merely by the simple fraternal act of sharing: sharing wealth, sharing power'.

In St Joseph's church in La Saline slum, not far from Father Aristide's old church of St Jean Bosco, burnt out in 1988, when 13 of his congregation were killed, Father Wim Boksebeld, an elderly Dutch priest who has spent 24 years in Haiti, said: 'They accused him of being too political. The bishops felt they did not have enough influence over the popular church. It also sounded bad to the Vatican.' The Vatican alone recognised the Cedras regime.

Father Aristide is more than a socially committed priest. He puts dedication to justice at the centre of his faith and describes his vision of a church in which authority comes from the bottom up. 'We must not fear the word 'popular'. The Church is a popular church, the people's church. We must not reconcile ourselves to all the corrupt ways of our society.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments