In the wake of the electoral coup which installed Jovenal Moise, a right-wing protégé of former President Michel Martelly, as Haiti’s new president, there has been a marked increase in repression directed against grassroots activists. Yesterday, there was an assassination attempt against former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. President Aristide had been summoned to appear as a witness in a court case. While returning from court, his motorcade was attacked by armed Haitian police. A number of people were injured in the attack. Mass protests against the police broke out immediately.
This attack on President Aristide signals a new stage of terror in Haiti. It harkens back to the days of the Duvalier dictatorships. Human rights activists and all supporters of democracy in Haiti need to condemn this attempted assassination and demand that those who committed this act be brought to justice.
P.S. : Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic priest of Haiti’s poor, served three times as his country’s president, in 1991, 1994-1996, and 2001-2004. Aristide was born on July 15, 1953, to a family of peasants of moderate means outside Port-Salut in southwestern Haiti. When he was still an infant, and after the death of his father, the Aristide family moved to the capital, Port-au-Prince. Educated by Salesian priests, Aristide studied in Israel, Greece, and Canada. He was ordained a priest on July 3, 1982. In 1985 he was assigned to the St. Jean Bosco parish in one of Port-au-Prince’s slums.
Aristide quickly acquired a reputation for courage, as he delivered fiery sermons targeting dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) and his henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes. This earned him the hatred of Duvalier and his successors, who ruled Haiti during the period of instability that followed Duvalier’s departure (1986-1991) and made him the target of up to seven assassination attempts. On September 11, 1988, as Aristide was preaching mass at St. Jean Bosco, armed gunmen assaulted the church, killing thirteen before setting the building on fire. (Aristide miraculously escaped.) Another devoted, though less violent, enemy was Haiti’s Catholic hierarchy, which resented Aristide’s revolutionary message and his sympathy for the theology of liberation, a liberal reading of the Gospel popular in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. The Salesians expelled Aristide from the order in December 1988. (Aristide renounced the priesthood in October 1994.)
Aristide’s message was highly popular with Haiti’s poor. He dared to stand up against the Macoutes who tyrannized the country’s inhabitants. His anti-American rhetoric was in tune with most Haitians’ political convictions. In a country plagued by widespread poverty and deep inequalities, he professed interest in, though not outright adoption of, Communism. A dark-skinned Haitian, he capitalized on the dark-skinned majority’s resentment against the mulatto minority that dominated Haiti’s economic life. Aristide astutely delivered most of his speeches in creole, the French-African dialect used by poor Haitians, rather than the academic French that the Haitian elite traditionally favored. When presidential elections monitored by the international community were held on December 16, 1990, Aristide won a decisive first-round victory with 67.48 percent of the vote.
Political controversy plagued Aristide’s first presidency (February 7, 1991-September 30, 1991; October 15, 1994-February 7, 1996). His decision to raise the minimum wage angered the country’s economic elite and foreign donors; the army grew restless after Aristide fired most of its senior officers shortly after gaining office. But criticisms focused mostly on Aristide’s human rights shortcomings. On April 4, 1991, former president Ertha Pascal-Trouillot was sent to the national penitentiary, then put under house arrest. She was released only after intense international pressure. In a famous September 27, 1991, speech, Aristide made a nominal apology for the practice called Père Lebrun, or necklacing, a torture popular among his supporters that consisted in throwing a tire filled with burning gasoline around a suspected Macoute’s head. Raoul Cédras, whom Aristide had appointed as interim commander-in-chief, overthrew Aristide in a September 29 coup that Aristide and his supporters accused U.S. president George H. W. Bush of supporting. Aristide flew to Venezuela and exile.
In 1993 Aristide settled in Washington, D.C., and asked U.S. president Bill Clinton to help restore him to power. Following three years of failed diplomatic and economic sanctions, U.S. forces landed in Haiti on September 19, 1994. Aristide returned on October 15. He left office at the end of his first term in February 1996, then returned for a five-year term in February 2001. Aristide’s second presidency was marked by economic and political turmoil. Opposition parties, accusing Aristide’s supporters of electoral fraud, boycotted the 2000 presidential elections, then denounced Aristide’s presidency as illegitimate. They also accused Aristide of sponsoring political assassinations, either through the Haitian National Police or through paramilitary groups known as chimères (chimeras). Due to political instability, foreign donors canceled most of the funds pledged following the U.S. intervention of 1994.
In the fall of 2003 the United States asked Aristide to distance himself from Amiot Métayer, who led a group of chimères called the armée cannibale (cannibal army) in the city of Gonaïves. When Métayer was subsequently murdered, his supporters accused Aristide of ordering Métayer killed to improve his relations with the United States. In February 2004 Métayer’s brother Butter allied himself with Louis-Jodel Chamblain, the leader of a paramilitary group who had terrorized Haiti in 1991-1994, and former police chief Guy Philippe. They launched a rebellion that soon spread to the city of Cap Haïtien, then marched on the capital, Port-au-Prince. At the prodding of his former French and U.S. supporters, Aristide left Haiti on February 29, 2004, for an initial exile in the Central African Republic. (Aristide later claimed he had been abducted by U.S. troops.) Following Aristide’s departure, four major power centers emerged in Haiti: remnants of Aristide’s chimères; Philippe’s troops; French and American peacekeepers; and Gérard Latortue, chosen by a committee representing Haiti’s various political parties to become interim prime minister.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide married Haitian-American lawyer Mildred Trouillot in February 1996. They have two daughters.