Rise and fall of a 'Haitian Mandela'

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now cornered by popular revolt, once embodied a dream of Haitian democracy.

It was a textbook moment in Jean-Bertrand Aristide's alternately troubled and glorious path from parish priest to president to, now, a pariah confronting total rejection by his country.

At a 1994 conference on military coups at the Carter Center in Atlanta, a panel of experts asked the then-exiled Haitian president what he'd learned from his own recent overthrow.

Moderator Robert Pastor recalls being astonished at Mr. Aristide's honesty: "He said, 'I won the election by too much.... I thought I didn't need to compromise and reach out to the opposition, and it ultimately provoked a coup.' "

Mr. Pastor's heart was won. "I thought, 'this guy's great. He learned a principal lesson and is willing to say it in public."

But, say legions of cynical former members of Aristide's inner circle, the president had drawn a more perverse conclusion: His mistake wasn't trying to squelch opposition; it was not succeeding in doing so.

How a man hailed as a potential Nelson Mandela for his impoverished and oppressed nation of 8 million could fall so far appears to be as much a tale of wishful thinking by desperate Haitians and the international community that backed him, say experts, as it was a tale of the old cliché that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Aristide was given that rarest of political gifts - a second chance. But, reinstalled in the presidency in October 1994 by a multinational military force, he used his resurrection to perfect an autocratic style, say even those close to him who were interviewed for this story.

Today, having infuriated, humiliated, and - some allege, killed - any once-devoted followers who crossed him, Aristide has few political allies left. Even his strongest credential - his election to a second term in 2000 - counts little as rebels gobble up territory and threaten to take the capital.

Languishing in that familiar pre-coup limbo that is a trademark of modern Haitian presidencies, Aristide is a symbol of a political culture that has been bankrupt nearly since it began as a slave revolt 200-plus years ago. But his historical image is just as a symbol of the impoverished Haitian masses he worked with as a parish priest.

In the years immediately following the 1986 ouster of the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, "Titide" - affectionate Creole for tiny Aristide - worked and preached from the St. Jean Bosco church, not far from Port-au-Prince's teaming Cité Soleil slum. [Editor's note: The original version of this story gave the wrong date for Jean-Claude Duvalier's ouster.]

He wore crisp shirts neatly tucked into dress slacks cinched hard around a tiny waist that suggested not just a vow of poverty but a vow of hunger. His slightly lopsided face was magnified by thick aviator glasses. His overall look: unassuming nerd.

But what came out of is mouth - in any of the seven languages he spoke - was powerful. His nationally broadcast masses preached liberation theology - equal parts consciousness-raising for the poor (the Vatican and US embassy termed it "class warfare"), nationalistic rhetoric eerily reminiscent of the Duvalier dynasty, and tart-tongued anti- capitalism.

Aristide was widely credited for his ability to turn proverbs and scripture into inspired Creole rhetoric - a rhetoric that seemed to transport him physically from the calm languor the Haitian heat causes to a perspiring and fiery physicality.

Bob Maguire, a professor at Trinity University in Washington who was a development worker in Haiti, recalls this Creole mastery that first emerged from the pulpit. Aristide, he says, once brought a stem of bananas to the altar during one of the 1980s military dictatorships and asked parishioners to walk up and take one. The Creole word for this clump of bananas is a homonym for the word "regime." "See how easy it is to take apart a 'regime'?" Aristide asked his congregation.

But if his oratory was often eloquent, it could also generate a violent spark on the emotional Haitian street. Aristide could and did inspire mob violence. This power to rival the authorities generated so many assassination attempts that Haitians often attributed his survival to God-given mystical Catholic or voodoo powers.

Indeed, the more Aristide was persecuted, the more he was adored by the poor.

"He had all the characteristics of an honest leader because he was a man of the cloth in a very spiritual country," says Alice Blanchet, a Haitian-American who worked in Aristide's presidential administration in the mid- 1990s. "He had helped mobilize the public for the ouster of Duvalier and a series of other coup leaders."

But, says Ms. Blanchet, even back then some close to Aristide were uncomfortable with the way he cast himself in Haitian metaphor as a kind of messiah.

Those closest to him as far back as his parish days say now that they overlooked his autocratic approach because he had the cloak of democratic principle drawn close around him.

"I think he was a weak leader and we overjudged his mandate," says one American who was close to Aristide and asked not to be identified. "His biggest problem is he doesn't listen, he doesn't compromise, and he's an egomaniac in that regard ... he was always that way. It wasn't like living with Gandhi.... He didn't believe in self-denial, and he wasn't spiritual in any way. He was a politician."

But, he adds, "I don't care if he loved fine clothes gold watches and swimming pools...he was democratically elected. And no one accused Mandela of ever being spiritual."

But Aristide rose to power because he was seen as a great hope for change - someone very different and, having won two-thirds of the vote in a 13-candidate election in 1990, someone with unprecedented public support. So, say those who were close to him, his peccadilloes were overlooked - from his increasingly elaborate household compound to his tailored clothes and an increasingly domineering attitude.

"The first thing I noticed was wrong, " says Blanchet, was when she was hired by the exiled Aristide in 1993 to work with his prime minister back in the capital city. "Aristide wouldn't return phone calls to the prime minister ... he wouldn't even give [the prime minister] his direct phone number."

Clotilde Charlot, who worked with Aristide during his first presidency and was part of the professional brain trust who helped him get started in politics, says her first real surprise came on the heady day of his inauguration.

Aristide suddenly disinvited from the inaugural parade his longtime political ally, Evans Paul, who had just become the first democratically elected mayor of Port-au-Prince.

The president deemed him "unimportant." Ms. Charlot said it was a shockingly primitive power play.

Throughout Aristide's first interrupted presidency and the second one that' started in January 2000, his political tactics have essentially nixed a working parliament - and a working government. Key programs his own administrators labored to create would be inexplicably killed by Aristide. He rejected a hard-fought privatization plan that would have created government capital on the eve of an international loan being granted, says Blanchet. He sent an envoy to the Vatican to solicit the church's help in negotiating a coalition government, only to announce while the envoy was still flying to Rome that this was not a mission on Aristide's behalf.

It seemed, she says, that his philosophy was to create chaos that would allow him to keep a grip on total - though unproductive - power. Others describe how Aristide would not even brook conversational opposition.

Vicki Butler, the wife of former Ambassador Tim Carney, recalls a breakfast with Aristide and his Haitian-American wife, Mildred, in which an argument ensued because Aristide suddenly wanted Ms. Butler to accept his somewhat nationalistic thesis that Haitians - who live in the some of the world's most difficult poverty - are "happy."

The ammunition for his argument: The Swedes have a higher suicide rate than Haitians - thus Haitians must be happy.

Butler says that Aristide's distaste for compromise meant he made no progress on Haitis' multitude of problems, from scarring deforestation and water degradation to disease and hunger.

"The man does not understand compromise and that's the nature and [larger] problem of Haiti." says Pastor. "It really is a case where leadership matters so much. He could have been a Mandela but he became a Mugabe."

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