Former Haitian President Leslie Manigat is still passionate about his country. It doesn’t matter that he was ousted from office in 1988, four months into his term, or that 16 years later Haiti is still in political chaos.
At 73, Manigat sits at the edge of his seat as he dissects the intricacies of Haitian politics. His voice gradually crescendos, and his hand waves like a wand as he accents every significant point. His hair graying, he still clings to the belief that Haiti can be a great nation under the right conditions. But the blood that has been shed in recent weeks suggests the country will have to pay a high price for democracy.
“Before realizing our hopes, it may be very costly for Haiti,” he said. “We have come to the point now, where people are on the verge of explosion.”
Manigat, a resident of Port-au-Prince, made his comments earlier this week, sitting in a modest MiamiGardens home, where he and his wife, Mirlande, are staying with friends. He arrived in South Florida two weeks ago for local speaking engagements for Haiti‘s bicentennial.
Today he will deliver a speech titled, “Haiti in the Twenty-First Century: Vision for the Future,” 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, 2650 Sistrunk Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. He will also hold a signing for his latest book in a three-volume series written in French that analyzes Haiti‘s 200-year history.
Manigat, a political science scholar educated in France, is regarded by many Haitian intellectuals as one of the country’s most educated and progressive presidents. But he has failed to capture the popular support of the masses, most of whom live in poverty and identify more with movements like the one that led to the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The leader of an opposition party that has been demonstrating against the Aristide regime, Manigat blames his disconnection with the people on the country’s high poverty rate and lack of political education among the voters.
“In such a context, it’s possible to manipulate people, to inflame them more than the people trying to speak reason and political persuasion,” he said. “They’re more emotionally taken by people who speak radically and [as demagogues]. That’s the problem I had from the beginning, and I’m trying to work on that.”
Prior to his 1988 election, Manigat spent 23 years in exile fighting the government of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He worked at universities in Washington, the West Indies and Caracas, Venezuela.
1987 election turmoil
In 1979, he and other exiles in Caracas formed a political party, called the Rally of the National Progressive Democrats, in response to the plight of boat refugees who were desperately fleeing the country.
“We wanted to change the life of the people through a program of social justice that would address poverty,” he said.
It wasn’t until 1986, after the downfall of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, that Manigat returned to the country. A year later, voters approved a constitution calling for civilian-led presidential and National Assembly elections. In November 1987, an election was aborted when 34 voters were killed at the polls and ballots were confiscated. In February of the next year, another election was held and most voters stayed away from the polls. But Manigat was elected with the backing of the military.
“It is the truth that I was elected in a minority context, because many parties had decided to boycott the elections,” he said. But the country was yearning for change, he said, and he thought he could move it toward democratization and modernization. He said he took a calculated risk by accepting the backing of military leaders, with the hopes of putting an end to the military’s unchecked political power once he was in control.
“One of the main problems of the country from the very beginning is the army,” he said. “It’s the army that won national independence ? through a war of liberation. From 1804 to the American occupation in 1915, there was only one civilian in power. All others were generals.”
But Manigat’s efforts didn’t sit well with military leaders. Four months after his election, he was spending a Sunday afternoon in the presidential residence when he got word that troops had stormed the NationalPalace. By , he and 20 other people were still in the presidential residence when the military arrived with guns and tanks and began shooting at the building.
“We have always been a non-violent party and non-violent government, so we erected a white flag at the top of the building to say we are not engaged in armed resistance against the army,” he said.
Barred from office
A military general told them to come out with their hands in the air. “If we had resisted one shot, we would have been wiped out,” he said. “We were aligned along the wall, as if they were going to kill us.”
But their lives were spared, and the military took them directly to the national airport, where they were flown to the Dominican Republic. Before boarding the plane, Manigat turned to the television cameras and said: Good luck to my country.
After being welcomed by the Dominican government and staying in a hotel, he left three days later for Europe, where he stayed until August, when he was recruited to be a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Later, he lived in Europe and taught at Sorbonne University of Paris and the Institute of International Relations in Geneva.
In 1990, he and his wife returned to Port-au-Prince to allow Manigat to run for president. But members of the country’s electoral council refused to allow him in the election because he had already been president once.
Aristide was elected in December 1990 and the voters were “fooled to think that social revenge would fix the country’s problems,” Manigat said.
Now that people’s illusions have been shattered, his party has been promoting the slogan: “To prepare and succeed post Aristide.”
He said many people have asked him to run for office in the next presidential election, and he will do it if the conditions are right.
“I’m not a fanatic for power, but if I’m given the chance to save my country, I’m ready,” he said. “The country needs people who are completely honest, dedicated, caring for the suffering majority and open to the world. If we cannot [develop the means] to start something in that direction, for me it’s not worth it.”
Alva James-Johnson can be reached at ajjohnson.com or 954-356-4523.
Regroupement National des Femmes Candidates (RENAFECA)