Haitian protesters call for the ouster of President Aristide in Fort Lauderdale

By Alva James-Johnson

When Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a 1991 coup d’etat, South Florida’s Haitians hit the streets, calling on the U.S. government to return the former priest to power.

U.S. troops landed in Haiti three years later, helping Aristide’s return, and many in the Haitian-American community rejoiced.

But some who pushed for Aristide are now at the forefront of a movement calling for his removal. They say Aristide promised democracy, but set up a dictatorship instead. Feeling betrayed, they are now determined to get the country out of the mess it’s in.


I played a role in motivating people to go to demonstrations in the 1990s, asking the U.S. government to do something against the military government in power at that time,” said Lesly Jacques, director of a popular Haitian radio station in Boca Raton. “The same way [President] Clinton took [Aristide] back, we believe [President] Bush should step in and do what’s necessary.”

Since December, Haitians in South Florida have been drumming up support on radio and television stations, and conducting weekly rallies. Some traveled to New York to demonstrate in front of the United Nations on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and plan to go to Washington on Jan. 30. The latest protest in South Florida was conducted Friday at the Broward County Federal Courthouse, drawing about 200 people.

Gerard Latortue, a former Haitian minister of foreign affairs and international relations under President Leslie Manigat, said many are demonstrating in South Florida because they’re hoping “the echoes will go to Gov. Bush, and he will advise his brother.”

He said Aristide’s message of peace and justice resonated with many Haitian-Americans in the 1990s. But many have been turned off by his management of the country. That feeling of dissatisfaction increased in recent months as Haitian-Americans got word of violence during anti-government demonstrations. For many, the last straw came Dec. 5 when Aristide supporters attacked students and faculty at Haiti State University, breaking the legs of university President Pierre Marie Michel Paquiot.

“Many of the supporters are now disappointed by the fact that there is chaos and anarchy in Haiti,” said Jean-Robert LaFortune of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition. “They do have a responsibility to stand up … because without the groundswell of Haitian support in 1994 Aristide would not be back in power.”

There are 2 million Haitians living outside the country, half of them in the United States. They represent Haiti’s middle class, sending $800 million in remittances annually, about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The Haitian government’s Minister of Haitians Living Abroad, Leslie Voltaire, said the group plays a vital role in keeping the country afloat, and is also needed for economic development and lobbying in the United States.

Voltaire said concern about the Dec. 5 university incident is “legitimate and a concern for all of us.”

“The president has condemned [the violence] and put a commission to inquire about who are the guilty ones who did that barbarian act,” he said. “It’s a matter of justice now.”

He said both opponents and supporters of Aristide have been guilty of violence, and the government is now having police accompany the students and other demonstrators for protection. He thinks some Haitian-Americans are calling for Aristide’s resignation because of unbalanced media coverage.

“What we’re seeing in Haiti is a minority opposition marching in the streets and asking the president to resign,” he said last week in a telephone interview from Haiti. “Unfortunately only the voice of the opposition is being heard in the media. … I think people should talk to their [family] in Haiti to see what the situation is, to check what they’re hearing from the news.”

A group of South Florida and New York activists who met in Miami recently said they’re demanding the immediate release of a Baptist minister and three other people who they said were arrested and beaten by the Aristide regime because of political differences. The brother and sister of the imprisoned minister, the Rev. Jackson Noel, begged the larger community to get involved.

“The way they tortured my brother over there, I’m not feeling good,” said Jean Claude Noel of Miami, his voice breaking with emotion. “Let’s put our voices together and cry for help.”

Jacques, of Radio Haiti Amerique Internationale Network, said he belongs to another group called Coalition for Justice and Democracy, which organized the protest Friday. He said he supported Aristide’s return in 1994 because he thought the priest would not rule as a dictator like the father and son Duvaliers who controlled the masses with a security force called the Ton Ton Macoutes.

“Aristide’s rhetoric was different,” Jacques said. “He said we weren’t going to have the Macoutes anymore, but now we have [pro-government] thugs terrorizing the people, and we cannot tolerate that. I feel betrayed completely by Aristide.”

Three other organizations — Patriots United for Democracy in Haiti, PATRI and the Haitian American Republican Caucus — have been organizing demonstrations at the Torch of Freedom in Miami. One organizer, Karyne Sylvestre, a host on Radio Madoken in Miami (1020 AM), said she fled to New York during the U.S. embargo in 1994, then returned to Haiti six months later when Aristide was back in power.

“I took my two children and went back because I wanted to help him rebuild the country,” she said. But later she and members of Aristide’s party fell out politically. When she ran for a deputy position in a local election in 2000, she said, Aristide supporters rigged the election so she would not win. Then they threatened her life when she spoke out against the injustice. She fled the country Aug. 7, 2002, and arrived at Miami International Airport in disguise.

“Aristide must go so we can build our country like our ancestors hoped to do it,” she said. “Aristide is just a shame for our country and all the people who believed in him before.”

Haitian-born Gerald Jean Pierre, of Pembroke Pines, said he was an army sergeant who went to Haiti with U.S. troops in 1994.

“As a Haitian-American, I was glad to be part of that historical moment,” he said. “I was taking an ousted president back to Haiti, and I thought it was going to be real change for the country to start moving forward.”

Now he thinks the United States made a mistake. He’s among those who think Aristide should fulfill his term since he was the first democratically elected president.

“At the same time, I don’t think the pressure should slow down. They should keep the pressure on him, to get the country moving.”

But while the recent demonstrations may be reminiscent of the 1990s, some Haitian experts said the numbers are a far cry from the thousands who protested in Miami and New York to restore Aristide to power. And they doubt it will affect the Bush administration.

Robert Fatton Jr., a Haitian expert at the University of Virginia, said the fact that it’s an election year probably won’t matter. Most Haitian-Americans vote for Democrats.

Alva James-Johnson can be reached at ajjohnson@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4523.