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6744: From The Progressive - January 2001 (fwd)
From: Haiti Support Group <email@example.com>
Keywords: Aristide, elections, 2000
By Catherin Orenstein
The Progressive - January 2001
Francilus Saint Leger loves Haiti's once and future leader, Jean-Bertrand
Aristide. Dressed in olive green U.S. army surplus and a red Marlboro
baseball cap--fashion culled from the barrels of rad pèpè, or used American
clothes, that are sold in the streets here--he stands up, shakes a proud
fist, and displays a purple ink-stained thumb to show that he has voted.
"We are 100 percent Aristide here, each and every one of us!" he says.
"Aristide is in our hearts. Write this: I love Titid!"
Titid is the nickname Haitians have given Aristide, a diminutive that
connotes affinity and trust. In the dirt road that passes by voting booth
#1129010005, in the impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Pelé, women
are cooking on charcoal stoves, children are kicking a half-inflated soccer
ball, a party of goats meanders through the morning commerce, and a slow
but steady trickle of voters wait their turn to select a leader. Some of
them wear headbands with Aristide's picture and his campaign slogan: Lapè
nan tèt, Lapè nan vant--"Peace of mind, bread in the belly." It's a
memorable couplet, because the words for peace and bread are written, and
sound, exactly the same in Haitian Creole. Among Haiti's poor, who rarely
have enough to eat, the concepts are equally entwined.
As a small crowd gathers, Saint Leger leads them in a chant: "Aristide,
President! Aristide or death!"
Further down the road in the seaside slum of Cité Soleil,
fifty-nine-year-old Jésula DuFort--her name means "Jesus is here, of
strength" in Haitian Creole--also loves Aristide. As election officials
load boxes of ballots onto a truck for transport to a counting station, she
pulls her laminated voter registration card from a small, zippered purse
dangling around her neck and complains that she didn't get to vote today.
The office where she had registered closed early, after all of the ballots
were used up. She is disappointed, she says, that someone else got her
ballot, and she pulls another laminated card from her purse to show me who
she wanted to vote for. On one side is a tiny calendar in red ink; on the
other is a photograph of Aristide--smiling and looking out through a pair
of large, gold-rimmed glasses. It is a particularly unintimidating photo:
One of his eyes appears slightly larger than the other, and his face
flashes when the light of the afternoon sun hits the plastic. Thousands of
Haitians carry this same picture--often right next to photos of children or
lovers. It is simultaneously one of the most beloved and controversial
faces in Haiti. "Titid is the only one who cares about the poor," says
DuFort, holding the card to her heart like a charm. "He is the only one for
On Sunday, November 26, Haitians showed up at the polls to elect nine
senators and a new president. And the week came to a totally predictable
end. According to Haiti's electoral commission, 92 percent of Haitians
chose Aristide. But not everyone views Aristide as a democratically elected
leader. Haiti's opposition--a coalition of fifteen small parties calling
itself the Democratic Convergence--boycotted the vote. The United States
and the European Union refused to fund it. The Organization of American
States (OAS) declined to send election monitors. And United Nations
Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended that the U.N. mission in Haiti
should end when its current mandate expires next February. There is
currently no American ambassador to Haiti (a decision the embassy spokesman
says is not political). And as a result of ongoing electoral disputes,
hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign loans (including virtually all
U.S. aid to Haiti's government) remain frozen. Faced with international
isolation and antagonism even before he has taken office, Aristide may have
won the race, but it will be difficult for him to carry out his grassroots
mandate. The election, in which Aristide ran uncontested against six
unknowns (three of whom had dropped out by election day), has been cast as
a referendum on Aristide's popularity. But the discord over the vote also
reflects the radically different ways Haitians and foreigners see Aristide
On election day, the broad and normally overburdened streets of
Port-au-Prince are quiet. Small barricades--made up of tires, fenders,
wheelbarrows, and, in one case, the entire burned out shell of a
jeep--block the intersections. They are part of a citizens' campaign to
keep traffic thin and the day peaceful. Children play soccer between the
barricades, moving rocks when necessary to let a car pass. The day is calm,
but on the radio Chavannes Jean-Baptiste--leader of Haiti's largest peasant
organization and once a staunch ally of Aristide's but now a supporter of
the opposition--is denouncing the vote. "This is not an election; it's a
consecration, one that will bring Haiti an illegitimate president who will
set up an illegitimate government," he said, according to a wire service
He is speaking, in part, about an electoral dispute that began last May
when opposition candidates contested the results of local and legislative
elections swept by Aristide's Lavalas Family party. Although the vote was
fair, the opposition candidates, backed by the OAS, contended that because
of counting flaws ten of the Lavalas winners, who swept sixteen of
seventeen senate seats, should have been forced into runoffs. Since the
Haitian government refused to redress grievances concerning the May vote,
they claim that Aristide is a despot, seeking to stack the parliament with
flunkies. Lavalas supporters respond that the opposition, which was going
to lose the elections anyway, had nothing to lose by boycotting them.
To American officials, Haiti's impasse is merely more evidence of the
intransigence of both Aristide and the government of current president René
Garcia Preval (widely perceived as beholden to Aristide). Following the OAS
refusal to monitor the November 26 election, the United States did not send
official observers or provide electoral assistance. An official statement
from State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker criticized the "serious
irregularities" in Haiti's May vote count--a position that has a certain
comic appeal today, in light of America's own contested Presidential election.
Participation in the November election was in dispute. Haiti's election
commission cited a 60.5 percent turnout, a figure corroborated by a small,
unofficial delegation of international monitors. The opposition, by
contrast, claimed a 5 percent turnout, and the State Department--indicating
its allegiance--agreed that there was a low voter turnout and called for
"reconciliation among all sectors of Haitian society."
Some foreign analysts point out that the Haitian government, and Aristide,
might have made life easier for all simply by accepting a recount of the
May vote, thereby reconciling with opposition parties. Lavalas candidates
would have won a sound victory in any case, and Aristide's new government
might then have found itself in a better position with the international
community today. But to the Haitian government, the electoral dispute is
not just a matter of a few senate seats, it's part of the greater struggle
for independence. Lavalas officials saw the November vote as a strike for
"The international community cannot come here and tell us how to vote,"
says Lavalas senator Yvon Neptune, who is also president of the senate. "It
was a matter to be decided by our constitution and our electoral
commission. . . . This is a new government, one that is not going to jump
up and say 'yes sir!'--or cry uncle."
Aristide himself seems more cautious about his mandate. During his first
press conference in five years, he sits somber-eyed before a tide of
journalists, in front of a blue and red wall on which is written in large
letters, "PAIX"--peace, the key word in all of his slogans, speeches, and
imagery. "We can see Haiti as half empty," Aristide begins. "It is a land
where there is hunger, poverty, killing. But if we see only the negative
aspects of Haiti, it will be hard to arrive at peace." He holds up a glass
of water on his desk. "But Haiti is also half full. It is a land of riches.
Every Haitian has positive value, every person without distinction. . . .
But, we will have to work together. We are willing to work with all sectors
and people who want to work for peace."
Aristide knows the perils of crossing the international community. As a
Salesian priest working among the poor, he first rose to power in the late
1980s on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of peasants--a massive
popular movement that toppled the Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990, he became
Haiti's first freely elected leader when he won the presidency by a
landslide with promises to raise the minimum wage, strengthen national
industry, and tax the wealthy--who traditionally escaped this burden.
"Alone we are weak, together we are strong," he called out. "United, we are
Lavalas"-- Creole for a great flood.
But Aristide was never able to carry out his program as president: A
military coup sent him into exile in September 1991, less than eight months
into his term. In the following years, the military raped, tortured, and
killed thousands of his supporters. Others took to the seas. The grassroots
movement ground to a standstill. As a condition for returning Aristide to
power three years later, on the heels of 20,000 American troops who landed
in Haiti in September 1994, U.S. and international lenders demanded he
abandon his social justice platform in favor of free market economic
reforms. He lowered tariffs and agreed to start privatizing state-run
Civilian rule was restored, but Haiti's popular movement was devastated.
Grassroots leaders were in exile, or killed off. The prospect of
reconciliation with the coup leaders and financiers, as well as the issue
of foreign intervention, divided those who remained. The Lavalas political
platform soon splintered, making fast enemies out of former allies, in
particular over issues of modernization--the Haitian euphemism for the
program of economic reforms required to win international support.
Meanwhile, barred by the Haitian constitution from seeking a second
consecutive run, Aristide handed the presidency over to Preval in 1996,
having served only a third of his elected term. Today, many Haitians view
Sunday's vote as his second chance--and theirs. But he is not the same man
he was ten years ago.
In person, Aristide is smaller, and softer spoken, than one might imagine.
He is a surprisingly unassuming figure for a "firebrand priest"--as he was
often called in American newspapers. In an office located on a wing of his
Tabarre home, a picture of Saint Jean Bosco, founder of the Salesian order
under which Aristide was trained, hangs on a wall between bookshelves.
Saint Jean Bosco is also the name of Aristide's old church, by the slum of
La Saline, burned down by the military while Aristide was saying mass in
1988. But today he addresses the issue of reconciliation, not only with the
former coup makers, but also with former allies. He talks about his
unsuccessful efforts to reach a compromise with opposition candidates as
late as October that would have induced them to participate in the elections.
Aristide also talks about the need to work with the international
community. Much of his proposed government program focuses on food
security, strengthening national industry, and alternative sources of
aid--measures that could make Haiti less reliant on traditional donors.
Some members of his Lavalas party seem confident that these measures will
be enough, even without international help. But Aristide himself is not so
quick to dismiss it. "If the international community is not for us," he
tells me, "one thing is sure: We will fail." Then he measures his words.
"On the one hand, we must take a rational approach--meaning dialogue with
the international community," he says. "On the other hand, we must protect
As for Haiti's poor, beyond the walls of Aristide's home at Tabarre, on the
outskirts of Port-au-Prince, it seems they care little about opposition
candidates or international observers. "What do they have to do with me?"
asks Dyedonne Jean, who never voted before Aristide came along. Jean is not
his real name, but an alias that he used five years ago, when Haiti's
military regime was still fresh enough in his memory to frighten him. He
has a scar from a bullet that passed through his chest, just below his
heart, and horrifying memories of being kidnapped and tortured during
Haiti's coup years, when paramilitary thugs caught him pasting Aristide
posters on a wall. He also has a scar on his leg, where the exhaust pipe of
his moped burned him when they threw the vehicle on top of him in the back
of their pickup truck. Today, Jean carries a membership card from the Coup
Victim's Organization. He has a job as a photocopier in the Ministry of
Justice. And he has great hopes for his country with Aristide in power. He
believes he may get a better job. And he expects the government will bring
more trials against military leaders, especially against Emmanuel
Constant--the erstwhile leader of Haiti's death squads, who now lives in
the United States.
"Aristide understands hunger and poverty because he was a priest," says
Jean. "And he will never stop working for us."
Perhaps Aristide will not turn out to be what Jean imagines. Since he was
never able to fulfill his first presidency, Aristide has become, in a
sense, a symbol of all the Haitian poor want and cannot have. In ten years,
those expectations have been rising into a crescendo of hopes even while
Aristide has been tempering his approach. Ten years ago, he was a radical
parish priest living among the poor. He faced assassination attempts more
than once. In 1990, he campaigned around the country riding on a donkey,
bringing out crowds of hundreds of thousands. But this year he left his
house only rarely, most recently to console the mother of a child killed by
one of the dozen pipe-bombs that exploded in Port-au-Prince the week before
the election. Now he is married, with two children. He has adopted an
approach of compromise and dialogue. And yet for all that, he finds himself
in a familiar spot: Even before resuming his role as president, he is
already squared off against the whole of the international community.
Perhaps Aristide will not turn out to be the leader Haitian people once
knew, and have since been waiting for. Certainly he is not the leader that
foreigners have been waiting for. Nevertheless, in the eyes of many of
Haiti's poor, he is still the best hope.
Dorila Gilem lives in Fort Dimanche, the notorious prison of the Duvalier
dictatorship, which is located in the slums near the bay of Port-au-Prince.
Squatters have claimed it in recent years and renamed the former torture
center "Democracy City." Cooking pans litter the corridors, and beds fill
the old cells, where prisoners' graffiti still mark the walls. In one room,
a bed covered with a floral spread stands against a wall, where one can
still see the crumbling outlines of individual cells--so small that a human
being would have remained crouched in a ball for the duration of the
Here, Haiti's citizens live in poverty that strains the imagination, where
the weight of history is heaviest and the hope for a better future is all
the sharper. "We are grownups and can vote for ourselves," says Gilem, when
asked if it matters that the international community has not sent observers
for Haiti's elections. She gives a look down the sweltering hall, where
hundreds or maybe thousands of people have made a home out of a monument to
death. "What would I like Americans to know? That we would like them to
give us a chance."
Catherine Orenstein is a freelance writer in New York City.
Haiti Support Group (firstname.lastname@example.org)