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22254: (Arthur) South Africa's Sunday Independent on Aristide (fwd)
Second Take: South Africa's taxpayers went bananas over our welcome to
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's twice deposed president.
By Maureen Isaacson, The Sunday Independent, (South Africa)
It is surprising that former Haitian president Jean Bertrand-Aristide has not
yet been blamed for the torrential storms and mudslides that continue to rack
his country. The former liberation theologist and Catholic priest who last
year legitimised the practice of voodoo was in good spirits at the weekend,
reported Huntley Medley, his spokesperson in Jamaica.
In response to a request by the Caribbean community (Caricom) and the African
Union, the South African government has granted Aristide temporary asylum
"until the situation in Haiti normalises". It is hoped that the United Nations
peacekeeping forces that will replace United States troops in June will help
stay the bloody conflict that has continued to rage since Aristide was ousted in
a coup in February.
Clarity has yet to be shed on the circumstances of Aristide's removal on
February 29, which have led to a call for an investigation by Caricom and the AU.
The White House strongly denied Aristide's claims that he had been forced to
leave the country - with his wife, his brother-in-law and two bodyguards.
Difficult as it is to break through the mythology that alternately casts
Aristide as a victim of US economic sanctions and French debt, or as a
power-hungry villain, what we do know about him makes for a compelling narrative.
A president twice deposed, Aristide's story is as much about unfathomable
violence as it is one of a small country - 85 percent of its 8.2 million people
are impoverished - bullied by the big guns, in this case the US and France.
A glimpse into Haiti's history of slave trade is a reminder of its deep roots
of racial oppression. In January this year, Aristide, still in the hot seat,
celebrated Haiti's bicentennial.
He toasted the continued independence of Haiti, which came in 1804 when an
army of slaves ran Napoleon and his men off the island. You do not have to be a
pan-Africanist to know that Haiti, like Ghana, is a symbol of independence
But we have yet to understand the intricacies of this island, once painted
for its luscious tropical beauty by Paul Gauguin, now pockmarked by coups and
At the time of his return in 1994, Aristide told the international media he
would not rewrite the constitution and make himself president for life, as
Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier did seven years after he was elected president in
It was Papa Doc who diagnosed "presidentitis" as a mania for the presidency
that was to afflict his son Baby Doc Duvalier, against whose bloody reign
Aristide led a revolt in a climate dictated by right-wing death squads and threats
of military coups.
Although the US has been a key player in escalating poverty on the island, it
is clear Aristide, a former man of the people, is no angel. Spirituality,
however, was always on his agenda. After school in Port-au-Prince, Aristide took
a course in novitiate studies. A philosophy and psychology graduate from the
Grande Seminaire Notre Dame, and the state university of Haiti, he was ordained
in the Catholic church in 1983.
Reports have it that he was expelled from the Salean order for inciting
hatred and violence and the "exaltation of class struggle". He gave up the
priesthood in 1995 in order to pursue relationships: between Haiti and the Vatican and
between himself and Mildred Trouillot, an American citizen whom he married in
1996 and with whom
he has two daughters. In November 1996, Aristide formed the Lavalas Family
The litany of his wrongdoing includes an abusive police force, mob violence,
intimidation and human rights abuses. The murder of Jean Dominique, a radio
journalist, under Aristide's reign remains unsolved. Dominique had questioned
Aristide's wealth and his handling of foreign aid money.
Several other high-profile activists and opposition journalists were also
murdered during Aristide's term of office. On December 25, 2002, unidentified
armed men attacked Michele Montas, Dominique's widow, and killed her bodyguard.
Amnesty International's 2003 report, issued this week, said that numerous
threats against journalists "highlights ongoing impunity and attacks on free
speech". In 2002 a number of "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions were
Still, Aristide's supporters remind us that the former president did attempt
to replace the military with a civilian police force.
Analyses of Haiti under the rule of "Titid", Creole for "tiny Aristide" are
seldom impartial. Charles Arthur, the director of the British Haiti Support
Group, says Aristide is probably best described as a "populist" in that his
discourse was progressive.
But, Arthur says, when in power Aristide spent more time forging alliances
with cliques and former soldiers than with peasants, workers or students. "If he
had done more to help unleash the potential of the Haitian people, and less
to ingratiate himself with the international lending institutions, things would
Or would they? Aristide garnered 67 percent of the vote in 1990 and took
office on February 7 1991. By September 30, he was ousted by a military coup.
Aristide sought refuge first in Venezuela, later in the US. In October 1994,
Aristide flew back to Haiti to resume his term of office; he was accompanied by US
He had agreed to what Haitians refer to as "the American plan"; the
Governor's Island Accord in 1993. This called for civil reconciliation between Aristide
and opposition forces. It also called for "a structural adjustment" of the
Haitian economy, which included the privatisation of state enterprises.
Then came the hits. On March 28 1995, three days before then US president
Bill Clinton was due to arrive on the island, Mireille Durocher Bertin, who had
defended the CIA-backed FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti)
death squads during the coup, was murdered. Blame was placed at the door of
Mondesir Beaubrun, Haiti's interior minister, but this was considered by many
to be a set-up.
On November 7, deputy Jean-Hubert Feuille, Aristide's cousin, was murdered,
and the US intervened when Aristide ordered the arrest of General Prosper Avril.
Aristide won the presidential elections in November 2000 with 91,8 percent of
the vote. But the democratic soundness of the earlier Parliamentary elections
is the hinge on which Aristide's bone fides swing.
The US-dominated Organisation of American States claimed that the counting of
votes was flawed. A boycott of the Presidential election by the opposition
was brushed aside by Aristide, who said a huge majority who had the opportunity
to vote did so. "We are in a learning process about how to build a democratic
society," he said.
Not persuaded by the claims of the International Organisation of Independent
Observers that the elections had been fair, Bill Clinton and the EU ensured
that a $500 million loan from the Inter-American Development bank never reached
American sanctions did no harm to the business elite who live it up on the
paradise island. Sanctions did nothing to improve the situation of the Chimeres,
the slum dwellers whom Aristide set out to defend and who are known as
Aristide's gangs. It is the Chimeres who have slurred Aristide's name, and reports
have it that they rage through the streets high on rum and the cocaine. The
latter is said to be one of Haiti's main exports.
With Aristide's promises to "build utopia on a garbage heap" unrealised, the
Chimeres were among those who turned against him before the coup. Poverty has
hardly assisted the opponents, the Cannibal Army, who also are said to have
little regard for human life.
Earlier this month, Amnesty International pointed out that the human rights
situation in Haiti would worsen unless both rebel forces implicated in serious
human rights violations and armed supporters of Aristide accused of abuses
were disarmed and brought to justice.
It is important to note that former military and paramilitaries involved in
the 1991-1994 coup have been released from sentencing for murder, drug
trafficking and criminal acts against humanity, and add to the cocktail of terror.
Of course, Aristide is not oblivious to the problems. On November 28 2000, he
told a press conference of international journalists that the first step was
to address the problems among Haitians. "We have to restore our dignity,
address our own problems and create compromise between Haitians. Secondly we will
address the problems with the international community."
Once he has settled in after his arrival in South Africa tomorrow, Aristide
will hopefully inform us of his next step.
Assistant Editor & Books Editor