Portrait of a Folk-Hero: Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide

By Tom Block
October 1990

Pere Aristide hammers at the air, points his finger like a knife, solicits repetition first from one side of the congregation then the other. He attacks capitalism by name and what it has done to the poor of the third world. His congregation is riveted with excitement. Some of his young followers hold tape recorders to the loud speakers. They don't want to miss a word. Aristide continues," If you're a Christian, you can not accept to continue the Macoute corruption in this country. You are obliged to take historic risks. You are obliged to participate in this historic movement of Liberation Theology." His eloquence is explosive as he cuts through the charade and tells his congregation who its real enemies are.

Father Aristide is a wisp of a man, bespectacled, yet a firebrand preacher. His masses are more like three hour pep rallies, working one side then the other, always getting the answer he wants. He preaches human dignity, demands equal distribution of wealth and land; and insists the Church divest itself of power and privilege. Aristide criticizes the Church as backward, elitist, and cowardly. His brazen independence isolates him from most segments of society except for his closest supporters who are almost cult-like, but no one else can move the Haitian people like he can. When Aristide speaks, everyone listens. Though they may not all agree, everyone has a comment, even the bourgeoisie who are often under his attack.

37 year old Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born in poverty in the southern town of Port-Salut. His father was a small farmer who died when Aristide was three months old. As a small boy he was brought to Port-au-Prince by his mother who became a merchant. He went to school at St. John Bosco which would later become his parish as a member of the Salesian Fathers. Aristide was raised in a religious atmosphere. At sixteen, he entered the Salesian seminary in Port-au-Prince. A model student, he became a favorite of the Haitian bishops because of his brightness. He did advanced studies abroad in such places as the Dominican Republic, Great Britain, Canada, Rome, and Jerusalem. He speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French, Creole, English, Italian, and Hebrew. In the course of his studies he earned a Master's degree in Psychology. In 1982 he was ordained a member of the Salesian Fathers.

Just after ordination, he gave a sermon at St. Joseph's Church in La Saline in which he denounced the Duvalier regime. " I was walking through La Saline and it was raining. In the rain, in the flood of mud, the cart haulers covered with muddy sweat continued to pull their heavy loads without respite, as usual, doing the work of black slaves. Cart haulers, tragic, Sisyphean figures, condemned to carry eternally the creaking load of the pain of oppression. Can we continue to find this situation of violence that is imposed on the poor, normal? No, we must end this regime where the donkeys do all the work and the horses prance in the sunshine, a regime imposed by the people in charge."

Soon after this sermon, Aristide was sent into exile to Montreal by the Salesian Fathers. He returned to Haiti in 1985. It wasn't long before his devastating power caught the attention of the world community. At a startling defiant Mass, Aristide called for change in the country and bluntly criticized the dictatorship of Jean Claude Duvalier. This was when most of the Church still cowed in the face of Duvalier's repressive regime. His mass caught the attention of foreign journalists, causing them to compare him to religious martyrs such as Oscar Romeo and Dr. Martin Luther King. This was especially true after the many unsuccessful attempts on Aristide's life.

The 1985 Mass by Aristide is often cited as one of the sparks that set off the popular uprising of strikes and demonstrations which led to the ouster of Jean Claude Duvalier, a year later. It also earned Fr. Aristide the lasting enmity of the army, the police, and the para-military thugs known as the Tontons Macoutes.

It was not only secular groups that opposed Aristide. He raised jealousy and enmity among the Church hierarchy as well as in his own Salesian order. Rather than work within the bounds of programs already established for the poor by the Salesian Fathers, Aristide chose to establish his own projects, most notably, Lafanmi Selavi (The Family is Life). The organization run by Aristide and a core group of involved young people, works to find funding in order to provide housing, food vocational and literacy training for street boys. Aristide pointed out in interview after interview that the condition of these children was the result of a society in which the rich were unutterably rich and the poor impossibly poor. He blamed the condition of the children on the state itself and portrayed Lafanmi Selavi as one of the very few projects in Haiti which sought to raise the consciousness of people rather than simply to feed them.

Aristide, according to some, "reaped what he sowed." His church, St. John Bosco, was destroyed by fire on September 11, 1988 in a vicious attack by para-military thugs and on December 15, 1988 Aristide was expelled from this Salesian order. He is now a priest without a pulpit or faculties to administer the sacraments. He currently works with the Lafanmi Selavi in the Paco District of Port-au-Prince.

Politically, Aristide is far to the left according to most observers. His potent speeches do nothing to dissuade this opinion. At St. John Bosco, on Mother's Day, 1987, Aristide massaged the text of the day in his homily with giant leaps of logic and rhetorical twists. He arrived at the conclusion, that the only Christian way to run an economy is through communal property since we are all like Jesus, children of God, brothers and sisters.

On March 29, 1987 a new Constitution was approved by 99.81 per cent of those voting. Aristide was always skeptical about the Constitution and the approved electoral process. He did not believe any real democratic process was possible under a regime, every bit as vicious as the regime it replaced. By voting overwhelmingly in favor of the Constitution, Aristide felt that the Haitian people fell into a trap that would lead to sham elections sponsored by the U. S. government and the Haitian army, which would, in effect, lend formal approval to the same power structure as before.

In August 1987 while avoiding a transfer to another parish, Aristide would appear from time to time and give a speech in some outlying area. One of the most stirring talks during this period of flight was at Cap Haitian. Aristide was in top form. " The 1987 Constitution," he remarked to his listeners, "gives the citizens the right to bear arms at home." Quoting from the Gospel of St. Luke, he said, "And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one." Aristide was not preaching armed struggle but merely encouraging people not to face the Army's Uzis empty handed. "Everyone has machetes at home and little piles of stones for beating their wash clothes. Stones and machetes, of course, are not much of a match for Uzis but it's better than nothing." Aristide later explained to his critics that he wasn't advocating violence. "You don't want to tell your people to struggle against power and give them no means to defend themselves."

At a press conference on August 20, 1987, Aristide's rhetoric was sharp and the message pointed, a message that many of his enemies would use to help brand him as a Leftist, Marxist, or Communist. Aristide most likely is not a Communist but he surely makes it easy enough for his enemies to label him one. He exhorted, "We the nation of Haiti are a bicycle and it is the youth of Haiti who are driving that bicycle. Now the captains of corruption want us always to be steering that bicycle on a curve to the right, to the extreme, corrupt right, where the road will get worse and worse and we will fall off to our death. But we the youth of Haiti in the name of our Faith, say No! to the right hand turn. We say yes to a turn toward the left, a historic turn to the left, freely, voluntarily. We refuse this right wing curve of corruption. Instead we will advance toward the left, where our real Faith, our unshakable belief, can build a socialist Haiti. For only in a socialist Haiti will people be able to eat, will all people be able to eat, will all people be able to find justice, will All people be able to live in liberty, will the lives of all the people be respected."

In a January 1988 interview with National Catholic Reporter, Aristide said, "American Imperialism has supported the Haitian government. Elections aren't the answer, elections are a way for those in power to control people. The solution is revolution, first in the spirit of the Gospel; Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor. My role is to preach and organize. They can kill a thousand people but they can't kill everybody. Only with a conversion of the heart will come a change in social structure. The important thing is not to stay quiet, to use active non-violence. You don't try to die in your bed."

Aristide once explained his political underpinnings in an interview with Amy Wilentz. " Officially my friends and I can't say that we've been organizing against the government because we are in the Church. In other words we are not doing politics, exactly, but what we are doing is trying to get a better life. We are not a political party but our work is something like that. We are not neutral. We are doing politics without saying that's what we are doing."

There have been many death threats and actual attempts on the life of Father Aristide. On August 23, 1987 Aristide accepted an invitation to speak in a northern parish at Pont-Sonde. It was to be in honor of the peasants massacred at Jean Rabel that summer. He was warned not to go because the town was a hotbed of macoutes but he went anyway. Just before he was to speak, a gunman opened fire but the bullets missed their mark.

On the way back to Port-au-Prince the caravan of cars, including Aristide's, were stopped at a roadblock at St. Marc. Aristide was hidden in the back of one of the cars and the soldiers were unsuccessful in their search. The cars proceeded on but were stopped again at Freycineau. The cars and the priests inside were attacked by machete wielding and rock throwing soldiers. Many of the priests were dragged out and beaten but Aristide, well hidden on the floor board under his cassock, escaped again. Finally one of the drivers whisked Aristide to safety by running the car through an opening in the roadblock. On Sunday, September 4,1988, a man with a 38 caliber pistol walked up the aisle while Aristide was celebrating Mass at John Bosco but some youths intercepted him and disarmed him. The following Tuesday after Aristide's evening Mass, a group of men threw stones and shot at the windows of the church. The siege lasted for about three hours. The attackers shouted that they would return on the following Sunday. They made good on their promise.

There had been rumors of possible attacks on John Bosco all week. Just before the 9:00 a.m. Mass on September 11, 1988, while Aristide was being escorted through the courtyard to the church and his youths positioned themselves to guard the gate, hundreds of young thugs with knives and machetes marched down Grand Rue toward their intended victims, some were even picked up by city hall trucks of Mayor Franck Romain and transported to John Bosco. As attackers pelted the church with stones, Aristide led the congregation within in prayer and singing. The Church was also surrounded at this time by army soldiers and police who ostensibly had come to arrest Aristide but they did not intervene in the siege for several hours. Aristide's supporters tried in vain to fight back at the gates but the attackers opened fire with machine guns and rushed the gates. A group of assailants got gasoline from a nearby gas station and set the church on fire. The attackers broke down the church doors and made their way through the congregation, shooting and slashing their way towards the altar. Aristide's body guards backed Aristide through the sacristy into the inner courtyard, to the safety of the residence building. The Papal Nuncio was watching as the church burned to the ground and refused to make an appearance that would have surely brought an end to the slaughter. Finally the army and police entered the residence and searched for arms caches and found none. They also searched Aristide and harassed him, waving a gun in his face and saying such things as, " Look at you. Now you are pretending you can't talk but before your voice was loud enough. I bet you are afraid now. You used to talk all the time, didn't you. Now you're as quiet as a frightened sheep." A young Salesian was able to pull a car up to the residence and Aristide and others made their escape to safe refuge. Not all were so lucky. Fifty people were killed and seventy seven wounded in the John Bosco massacre.

Franck Romain, mayor of Port-au-Prince, a leader of the Tontons Macoutes was accused of directing the attack. He said later that Aristide was "justly punished." "He who sows the wind, reaps the storm." Many of the attackers appeared on T.V. later that night, bragging about their deeds, saying such things as, "The battle has just begun. We want to put an end to Aristide. Any parish that allows Aristide to celebrate Mass, will have only a bunch of corpses attend. Aristide can hide where ever he wants to. We'll find him and get our work done."

After the attack, Aristide held up at a school in Petionville. He was a nervous wreck, blaming himself for the deaths in his congregation. He is often given to nervous prostrations anyway and this situation only exacerbated his weakened physical condition. The Haitian bishops also took advantage of his weakened condition to pressure him into signing a transfer to Canada. His church gone, his people slaughtered, he was now ordered to leave Haiti.

Two weeks after the attack on St. John Bosco, Aristide's supporters marched to his refuge in Petionville. Aristide was reluctant to appear before them, but held up by his supporters on a balcony, looking drawn and unsteady, he slowly began to speak, "The operation of cleaning up the country has just begun. (Namphy overthrown.) Don't be discouraged. Someday we will walk together hand in hand. I can't talk now but later I will be able to say more."

A few days later after widespread protests by his supporters against his impending transfer, Aristide received a reprieve. The bishops temporarily halted the transfer. With part of his nightmare over, he made a tape to be played over Radio Soleil. It was vintage Aristide. "The victims of St. John Bosco were bathed in love and they fell like Jesus in order to liberate the country...The will of the people is the will of God...When we get to that distant point, we will have a worthy revolution; we will have upset the table of privilege so that we too will be welcome to sit and eat. We want to get there, we can get there, we will get there, in the name of Jesus who has helped us come this far..."

The bishops of Haiti had unsuccessfully tried many times to silence Aristide. When that didn't work, they tried to transfer him, but his avid supporters were always able to impede the transfers through their demonstrations. They once staged a hunger strike in the cathedral and the Haitian bishops were humiliated and forced to meet the strikers' demands. But the bishops bided their time and finally were able to apply enough pressure to the Salesians that Aristide was expelled from the order. The reasons given were: 1. A political commitment involving incitement to hatred and violence and the glorification of class struggle in direct opposition to the teachings of the church. 2. The desecration of the liturgy in which Aristide seemed to place the Eucharist and the sacraments at the service of politics. 3. A constant and public disruption of Church unity which had made the priest a figure of destabilization in Haiti. Aristide, now a priest without a pulpit was in effect banned. Would Aristide rise from the ashes of his priesthood as quickly as he rose from the ashes of St. John Bosco? Ironically, two weeks later, on New Year's Eve, Franck Romain was given safe passage to the Dominican Republic. Newspaper headlines read: THEY CRUCIFY CHRIST AND LIBERATE BARRABAS.

Aristide is still working with the poor in La Saline and still makes political speeches around the world. He is concerned about the forthcoming elections. In an interview on Radio Soleil in April, he said, "One can not count on the Haitian army to provide security during the elections. The trend today is to organize vigilance brigades and for people to provide their own justice."

Aristide does not live in the grip of fear of assassination any more. "One good thing," he says," is that I survived the attempts. You have a man everyone is against. They go after him with guns, rocks, and machetes, and he survives. They think I am protected. That I can't be hurt. My best protection though is to keep doing exactly what I have always done. Sometimes if you let a man live, he is less dangerous than if you kill him. If you kill him, you will never be rid of him."


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