By Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 16, 2004; Page A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 15 — Yves Voltaire rises at 6 a.m. and ducks out his front door for a walk in the cool mountain air.

Those first minutes to start the day along cabbage and corn fields are peaceful for the priest of Our Lady of Victory, a small blue-and-white church in the town of Paillant, 60 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

But then reality closes in around him. His walk takes him past the tumbledown health clinic, unable to test for AIDS in a country with the hemisphere’s highest infection rate, and prim children setting out on a two-hour hike to the closest high school. He also sees a reservoir project, vital in a region plagued by drought, that has stalled because of mounting violence.

As an armed uprising simmers in opposition to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Voltaire and millions of Haitians are facing a choice between a president who has failed to deliver promised reforms in this impoverished country and a violent insurgency seeking to overthrow him. The moderate civilian opposition has warned that it is in danger of being marginalized by the armed insurgency and thwarted by violent pro-Aristide groups that have made peaceful protest largely impossible.

An anti-government march Sunday ended in a rock-throwing clash between university students, the most militant element of the civilian opposition, and Aristide supporters. Police kept the two sides apart by firing tear gas and live bullets over the heads of government partisans.

Voltaire, who organized peasant groups to bring down the Duvalier dictatorship that ruled the country for three decades, once supported Aristide. He even worked for Aristide’s election in 1990. But he grew disaffected when Aristide, a charismatic former priest, moved toward supporting violence. Voltaire now says that none of the existing alternatives offers the country an equitable solution.

“The fact is that no one group is going to change this country,” Voltaire said, sitting on the veranda of a pink Jesuit retreat on a hilltop overlooking gray shantytowns here. “And I have been utterly amazed at their inability to come to a solution in the face of this degradation.”

Voltaire, 48, a balding man with a wide smile, said he had abandoned politics and, like many Haitians watching the intensifying conflict, wishes only for a quick and peaceful solution to the political strife. He continues working in his corner of Haiti for social justice, but stays far from the struggle for political power.

His memories trace decades of frustration in a country struggling to build a functioning democracy despite poverty, international sanctions and a legacy of bloody dictatorship.

He has watched heroes emerge over the years, only to see them murdered with impunity. Still other role models have disappointed him, among them Aristide. Voltaire has seen his own family members disappear or leave the country in despair.

The Voltaires were landowners in a region where that was rare. Alongside a lake in the southern village of Lomond, Andres Voltaire, his father, worked corn and sweet potato fields. Voltaire’s mother sold the vegetables at market.

As in many rural homes, Catholicism mixed with voodoo in the Voltaire household. The great wish of Yves Voltaire’s maternal grandmother was that he would become a houngan, or voodoo priest. He spent hours watching her prepare the food and drink involved in the voodoo ritual for the dead, then sing hymns after dinner. His says the experience taught him tolerance.

But as Voltaire reached adolescence, he learned firsthand about the political oppression afflicting his village. His uncle, Jacques Dastes, an outspoken peasant leader, vanished one night from his farm. He was never seen again, but many like him ended up in Ti Tanyen, where bodies were dumped north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

President Francois Duvalier’s security forces, known as the Ton-tons Macoutes, were a heavy presence in the town, wearing their signature red bandanas. The section chief did not receive a government salary from the kleptocratic dictatorship of Duvalier but was licensed to extort what he could from the farmers in the district. Duvalier, widely referred to as Papa Doc, governed Haiti from 1957 to 1971. After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc, who fled to exile in France in 1986 after rising protests against his rule.

The Catholic schools Voltaire attended, out of reach for Haiti’s poor, led him to a seminary on the plains outside the capital. It was run by Jesuits who were ardent proponents of liberation theology, a branch of Catholicism that links Christian teachings with the fight for social equality. The seminary prepared him for a life working among the poor.

Voltaire shared one philosophy class there with Aristide, a slight, bespectacled student visiting for a year from an urban seminary. He remembers Aristide as a “friendly, quiet student” who also subscribed to liberation theology teachings. But years later, Aristide’s preaching revealed views that included an apparent acceptance of political violence, far more radical than Voltaire could accept.

Liberation theology was reshaping Haiti’s conservative Catholic church, and placing those who preached its message in danger as the Duvalier government fought back against growing opposition. While mentoring future priests in the southern city of Les Cayes, Voltaire found himself frequently at odds with a Duvalier regional functionary. “You should be more careful,” he recalled the man telling him. “What you are doing is very foolish.” Voltaire’s superior at the seminary sent him to Montreal to study psychology.

In 1986, among the million-plus members of the Haitian diaspora, Voltaire, in a moment of jubilation, watched Jean-Claude Duvalier fall.

“There was this huge recovery of our pride and hope,” he said. “Haitians who had hidden who they were for years were suddenly saying, ‘Yes, I am from Haiti.’ “

At the time, Aristide was risking his life preaching provocative sermons that mobilized the poor against Duvalier, often in violent ways. The president condemns political violence today, especially when it is directed against his government. But the business associations, human rights groups and university students aligned against him contend that he uses violence to smother free speech.

“I have always said let’s move from misery to poverty with dignity,” Aristide said during an interview last week at the National Palace. “We still have misery and poverty. But we have a process in place now to remove what is left of dictatorship.”

Aristide’s ambiguous position on violence bothered Voltaire, who returned to work in the south after Duvalier’s fall. But the small church, as the more politically minded small-parish priests are known, decided to support Aristide’s run for president during the brutal transition that preceded Haiti’s first free elections in 1990.

Voltaire spent the campaign educating voters in 10 southern parishes where he was training priests in development work. He said he remained neutral, monitoring polling places on an election day fraught with confusion and violence. To him, Aristide’s election brought a moment of political openness and optimism.

But nine months later that apparent moderation vanished with the military coup that sent Aristide into exile. Voltaire began a clandestine life campaigning against the junta, which killed an estimated 3,000 opponents during its three years in power. Bouncing among parishioners’ houses, Voltaire organized peasant resistance groups and managed to avoid jail.

His parish at the time — Christ King Church in the southern city of Madian — overlooked a sweep of white sand and blue water. Each night, a few more parishioners would push into the foam on makeshift rafts hoping to reach Miami or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“They would come to me a few days before, and I would try to convince them not to go because of the dangers,” he said. “Then they’d just be gone. And it would hurt my heart.”

In 1994, U.S. troops carried Aristide back to power. And almost at once, Voltaire said, he noticed a change in the little priest he once admired. Aristide’s Lavalas party, whose Creole name means cleansing flood, took on a new militancy that overwhelmed other political voices. The party manipulated the results of several Senate races in 2000, according to international election observers, an election fraud that has hung up international aid since then.

It wasn’t only the political situation that bothered Voltaire. He saw little attention being paid to the countryside by a government that had promised to help peasant groups. His family’s community on a fertile plain remained neglected, for example, and long-standing requests for farm equipment and fertilizer were mostly ignored.

“You immediately got a sense that only power and keeping it mattered,” he said.

In exasperation, Voltaire left the country again, this time for study in South Africa, France and Israel. When he returned in December 2002, more than two years after Aristide’s reelection, his first reaction was deep disappointment.

He recalled looking down from the airplane on the flight home, seeing the bald hillsides and thin fringe of green along the blue Caribbean Sea. No new cultivation had appeared in his absence, and rampant deforestation driven by charcoal production among the poor had moved closer to the coast. His drive from the airport past the city’s infamous slums showed that misery had only worsened.

About the only change Voltaire has seen is increasing violence, which has come close to his parish, now poorer than ever. After a Lavalas militant was murdered in the uprising recently, Lavalas partisans retaliated by burning houses near Paillant, and rival groups now carry rifles openly in the town.

“I must speak, I must preach,” Voltaire said. “The reconciliation and reconstruction must involve not only the country itself but our own mentality. Only that will save us.”

© 2004 The Washington Post Company