By Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Intro by Christophe Wargny; translated and with an afterword by Carrol F. Coates. University Press of Virginia. Charlottesville and London, 1995. ISBN: 0-8139-1674-7. 208 pages.

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

June, 1996

Who is Jean-Bertrand Aristide today? What is his future with and for Haiti? To what extent is he the power behind Rene Preval's presidency? The career of Aristide was meteoritic from the days of the prophetic priest of the early and mid 1980s to the surprising presidential candidate of 1990; from the astonishing electoral landslide victory of Dec. 16, 1990, through the daring work of beginning to build a new basis of Haitian society until Sept. 30, 1991. On this heady career most can agree. But what of Aristide since then? Who is Aristide now? Where is he going?

As the elections of Dec. 1995 approached there was much talk that Aristide was who he'd been before the coup, before the humiliating disaster of Governor's Island Accord, and that he'd be the power behind the new president, his friend, Rene Preval, until Aristide could constitutionally be elected again in Dec. 2000. However, others argued that Aristide's star had fallen, that exile and the hard ball of international politics had beaten him down, compromised his spirit. On this view, Aristide has now mainly retreated from power, perhaps working slowly toward another presidential bid in 2000, but concentrating now more on letting President Preval run the country while Aristide relaxes and enjoys his new marriage.

One might hope that the volume under review might shed some light on this puzzle, to illuminate Aristide's views of life for Haiti after the coup, after Governor's Island, after his return. But, with deep regret, I must argue that DIGNITY is rather slim on provocative or new ideas and insights. It is a book of essays written during exile. Many of them are little more than personal recounts of news from Haiti, with disappointingly little depth analysis or reflection, and even little in the way of coherent essay form. They are more like lightly edited journal entries.

Two themes are more extensively covered than any others. The first is Aristide's terrible disappointment with the Governor's Island Accord. I found his treatment of this theme fascinating. Again and again he return to the accord. He sees it as an outrage, beyond any sense of justice or fairness, a rewarding of the coup and its tactics. Nonetheless, it was the best Haiti could get, a stunning defeat for Haiti's progress, a betrayal by the United States.

A second theme which is treated with some fullness in DIGNITY is Aristide's case for non-violent resistance. The argument in DIGNITY is that Aristide embraces a principled position of non-violence rooted in Christian scriptures and the models, ideas and writings of Mahandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Aristide makes an impassioned and persuasive case.

This argument interests me a great deal. I had the distinct sense from his book, IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR, that Aristide was not wedded to non-violence in principle, but as a tactic until such time as a violent revolution would be possible. The argument of DIGNITY is sending me back to IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR to re-assess my former position.

However, there are some curious aspects of Aristide's assessment of the possibilities of a violent response to Haiti's oppression. In one place he tells us that the 7 million (army) control the 7 million (the population). [p. 57] In another place he says: "The Haitian army is unenthusiastic about doing battle when the adversary is armed even lightly." [p. 41] Yet the Aristide of DIGNITY is crystal clear that non-violence is to be preferred in both principle and practice. My own experience with the popular movement in Haiti is that Aristide's view is not that of the majority. Rather, they practice non-violence tactically, having neither the weapons nor training to carry on a violent overthrow of the old regime. But, curiously, Aristide's honest assessment of the cowardliness of the Haitian army in the face of real resistance, and his assessment of the numbers that count (the 7 million vs. the 7 thousand), remind one of the numbers of 1791 -- the 500,000 vs. the 50,000. Unless one were wedded to non-violence in principle, as Aristide clearly is in DIGNITY, it is surprising that more calls for violent resistance have not been forthcoming in the recent years.

DIGNITY is a collection of short essays, each with a single word title: Violence; Communion; Inhumanity; Cynicism; Resistance; Negotiation; Sharing; Hope; Oblivion; Listening and Justice. There are a number of appendixes, including the text of the Governor's Island Accord, Aristide's UN speech of Oct. 28, 1993 and an interesting letter to President Clinton from the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus on March 18, 1994.

This work, like IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR, was written with the aid of Christophe Wargny, who provides a long, boring and, from my perspective, pompous introduction of some 34 pages. Wargny completely confuses analyses and reporting with preaching and advocating, thus providing a confused and even aggravating introduction. On the other hand, Carrol Coates provides not only an easily readable translation from the original French, but a useful afterword which takes a more sympathetic view of the volume as a whole that I have. In tracing the contents of Aristide's other major writings, Coates sees this book as another work documenting another specific period: "DIGNITY focuses on the period of exile from the flight to Venezuela (September 30, 1991) to the vote of the Security Council authorizing U.S. intervention (July 31, 1994). This book, like the previous three, includes, first of all, Aristide's reflections on daily events as well as on moral, theological, and political principles." While agreeing with Coates that this is so, for my tastes, hopes and expectations, I found much too little reflection of too little depth, insight and provocation.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu