February 15, 2004

The Aristide administration, which has been overthrown once already, has
been egalitarian in the lives destroyed during its time: Among its dead can
be counted the president’s former friends and his foes, democrats and
supporters of dictatorship. Among the victims have been policemen and
prisoners and politicians; rich men and poor, journalists and
slum-dwellers, human-rights workers and doctors and businessmen. Almost no
sector has been untouched.

No one can argue that Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency has been in any
way successful other than this: It exists. He was elected in 1990 with
enormous hope by an overwhelming majority in a legitimate election ? and
quickly overthrown by the Haitian Army and its friends. In 1994 he was
returned to power through the good will of the Clinton Administration, in
the optimistic expectation that he would be able to turn Haiti around. He
was not able to do so for a combination of reasons, some political, some
personal and most having to do with his inability to conduct a happy
relationship either with the Bush Administration or with his own business
and intellectual elite. Washington also cut off huge portions of aid, which
cannot have helped Aristide’s standing. Still, a fatal combination of
arrogance and naïveté on his part made Aristide’s difficult position much
more intractable. Meanwhile, the Haitian opposition has been coddled and
pushed toward the depths of intransigence by Aristide’s detractors in the
US government, in both Haiti and in Washington. By now, with the country
well on its way to chaos, many argue that Aristide has exhausted the
electorate’s patience and must be replaced.

Yet now ? as he finally begins to recognize how powerful the opposition has
become despite all his political jockeying and playacting ? should be the
time for all friends of Haiti, especially in the US government, to support
Aristide’s continuation at the helm: not because he is good but because he
is president. Aristide is a transitional figure and not the best of these.
He is no Mandela, and he does not have the political maturity to control
the violent forces that swirl through Haitian politics ? no easy job. Yet
the future of Haiti hinges on support for institutions and for a state
based on law.

As part of the unrest, a gang element managed to take over Gonaïves, one of
Haiti’s largest cities ? a ramshackle affair of shantytowns and gingerbread
houses atop salt flats and roads made undrivable by potholes, with few
enough institutions as it is. This gang, which styles itself the Cannibal
Army or, in its latest incarnation, the Artibonite Resistance Front
(perhaps more palatable to the international community), has burned down
the courthouse and the prison in Gonaïves, released the prison population
and forced the mayor to flee. Though there may be elaborate and in some
cases good excuses for these actions, taken as a trend they do not bode
well for the rule of law. In the wake of the Gonaïves takeover, ten lesser
cities have fallen to such forces, each in differing circumstances but all
motivated by encouragement from sectors of the opposition and by the sense
that Aristide is about to fall. That will not be helped by State Department
spokesman Richard Boucher’s hints on February 9 that a solution to the
situation might not necessarily include President Aristide. Three of the
towns have been retaken by the government.

The numbers of Aristide’s detractors, their unwillingness to stop their
protests even in the face of police brutality and killings and their
takeover of Gonaïves and other towns have brought a new humility to
Aristide, which sits rather uncomfortably on his proud shoulders. Still,
the situation has been volatile enough to force him to make necessary
concessions, under pressure from the Organization of American States and
Caribbean Community, to the opposition. Because the opposition is swollen
with self-importance in the wake of so many bloody victories in the
countryside, it may not respond to Aristide’s eleventh-hour overtures. It
was not moved by a huge outpouring of support for him in the streets of
Port-au-Prince on the recent anniversary of the fall of Duvalier.

It may be too late for Aristide. Rarely has a leader failed so grossly to
rise to a historic occasion. When he returned to power, he bravely
disbanded the Haitian Army and then promptly permitted a kind of mass
civilian militarization without insuring his continuing control over it. A
remnant of the old army is supporting and perhaps leading the current
chaos. But in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of instances, it is Aristide’s
own toughs who have turned against him. Someone has convinced them that he
no longer represents Haiti’s future; no doubt someone with money. In a
country as poor as Haiti, the man with more money to spend will win in the
end (as in the favelas of Brazil and the slums of Colombia), because it is
so very hard to maintain the high moral ground when no one’s paying you to
do it and the kids are starving back in the village or your one-room shack.

And the miserable street ? with its thugs and its slum-dwellers, with its
students and bricklayers and flat-tire fixers and car-wash boys, with its
orphans and preachers and market ladies and tap-tap drivers, with its
cart-pullers and trough-cleaners, its seamstresses and tailors, its
cock-fighters and garbage-pickers, numbers-runners, whores and
money-changers ? is Haiti’s political steamroller. The gods must help the
Haitian politician the street has finally turned against ? nothing else
will. It will be interesting to see who will reward the “resistance” for
its courage, and how. If Aristide must fall, let us hope still for real,
meaningful elections in Haiti, soon. But let us not expect them.
Amy Wilentz, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University,
is the author of ‘The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier’ (Simon &
Schuster, 1989).