The little priest who became a bloody dictator like the one he once despised

By Andrew Gumbel



21 February 2004

There was a time, 20 years ago, when anyone wishing to come to grips with the grotesque poverty and fitful violence of Haiti under the crumbling Duvalier dictatorship would have been itching to meet Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Back then, he was known as le petit prêtre, the little priest, a man whose modest stature belied a lion-hearted courage in denouncing social and political injustices.

At the Salesian church of St Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince, surrounded by ragged, hungry children, cripples and beggars, he quietly preached his message of revolution and empowerment for the poor. He cut an odd figure, with his gaunt face, his goggle glasses and his strange mixture of self-effacement, populist charisma and fierce erudition.

In the early 1980s, he was forced into exile after denouncing Baby Doc Duvalier’s violent repression of the masses and calling for an end to “this regime where the donkeys do all the work and the horses prance in the sunshine”. In 1985, just before Duvalier’s fall, Aristide returned to plead for a new Haiti that would be evangelical, popular and socialist.

As the Duvalier regime gave way to a period of military coups and tentative stabs at electoral democracy, he was the target of countless assassination attempts. Aristide never wavered. “Tout moun se moun,” he preached in Creole. Every human being is a human being. The masses loved him, and together they founded a movement called Lavalas, the Flood. By 1990, he was the new president, and the great new hope for the most corrupt, most dysfunctional, most desperately impoverished nation state in the western hemisphere.

Fast-forward to the present, and Aristide the petit prêtre is barely recognisable. He has become the very thing he used to despise: an autocratic political leader, seemingly intent on enriching himself and his inner circle, resorting to gangsterism and violence to enforce his will and counter all dissent.

In today’s Haiti, everyone is out for themselves, from the politicians to the masses. Allegiances are fickle, and interest groups are shockingly easy to buy off or coax into acts of violence. There is no professional class,just an elemental urge to grab whatever you can as quickly as possible. Poverty has spread, and the democracy Aristide promised is an empty shell, without even basic institutions such as an independent judiciary or a functioning parliament.

Aristide has alienated many of those who were his most enthusiastic supporters, and also created a monster he can no longer control. Haiti is in the grip of full-scale gang turf wars, and some of the worst elements of the old military hierarchy say they intend to seize the country by force.

Aristide admits an eclectic crowd to the presidential palace, from foreign ambassadors to slum gang leaders with whom he exchanges favours. When the foreign press was invited in days ago, he crammed then at one end of a reception room, and sat regally at the other end of a long wooden conference table. Two rows of 12 empty chairs separated him from the journalists, who had to stand.He tried to act the stern father, denouncing the “lies” the world was telling about Haiti and tried to paint his political adversaries as terrorists subverting the will of a peace-loving, non-violent people. It was miserably unconvincing, while pro-Aristide thugs were brandishing guns and burning the houses of suspected opponents.

In 1990, Aristide seemed a providential, almost messianic figure. Hope was snuffed out by a military coup after just seven months. He was forced into exile, left the priesthood, married and started a family.

Then in 1994, undaunted, he returned, messianic again, backed by 20,000 US troops and disbanded the Haitian military, He had the goodwill of the world, the overwhelming support of his electorate and plentiful funds from international aid agencies to breathe life into Haiti‘s moribund economy. And it all went horribly wrong.

By the 2000 elections, the agencies found up to 70 per cent of their money was lining the pockets of elected officials, leaving little for the projects it was intended for. Aristide and his Lavalas party won by a landslide, but international observers found widespread fraud, so the Americans and the European Union cut off all aid.

A western observer in Haiti said: “The problem is not that Aristide controls everything. It is that he controls nothing.” So the country has fallen prey to former death squad commanders returning from exile, armed gangs, and every conceivable stripe of criminal, racketeer and drug smuggler.

To Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who was once among Aristide’s most ardent followers, now le petit prêtre is “nothing but a political cadaver who will pass like garbage through the history of Haiti“.