Mike Lanchin
Regional analyst

Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Some blame Haiti’s political culture for Aristide’s downfall
In August 1992 I sat impatiently in the cramped downstairs of a small restaurant in Liverpool, waiting for a slightly built and beady-eyed man, dressed in a very elegant black suit, to finish lunch.

When he eventually got up from the table, surrounded by five burly and equally well-attired bodyguards, I was rushed forward to ask him a question – about the latest crisis in his native Haiti – to which he replied in heavily accented, though perfect English.

Attempting to pose a follow-up question, I was pushed aside as Jean Betrand Aristide swept out onto the streets, his entourage in tow.

It was my first and only encounter with the twice-elected, twice-deposed president of Haiti.

The man, once lauded by the majority of his country for standing up for social justice and speaking out against a dictator, is now vilified at home, isolated abroad and is desperately seeking refuge in Africa with his family and close associates.

Career change

A Salesian priest, Mr Aristide came to prominence preaching a radical message from the pulpit in the poor slums of Port-au-Prince.

'Baby Doc' Duvalier
Aristide spoke out for the poor during ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s rule
It was in the mid-1980s and “Baby-Doc”, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was in power, having been handed the reins by his father, “Papa Doc”.

“The press was muzzled, everyone was afraid to speak out. But Aristide spoke with great courage,” says Anne Fuller, a former human rights monitor for the Organisation of American States (OAS).

“He denounced the abuses of power, and the rich and all the forces that were keeping the people down and oppressed.”

At the helm of the radical Lavalas movement – Creole for torrential rains – Mr Aristide left the pulpit for the gruelling toil of political life.

In 1988 he was expelled by the Salesians for his political involvement.

During those years, he narrowly escaped assassination when his church was attacked by henchmen of the regime.

In 1990, four years after Baby Doc had fled into exile amid rising popular discontent, Mr Aristide swept into power with his Lavalas party in Haiti’s first free elections in its 200-year history.

Inner circle

When Aristide came back, he seemed to be more and more focused on getting 100% control over things in Haiti

Anne Fuller
Ex-human rights monitor for the Organisation of American States
Nine months later, an army coup sent Aristide into exile. When he returned to take up his presidency in 1994, under the protection of the US, many of those who knew him say he was a different man.

“I don’t pretend to know him well enough to understand the change, but I think Aristide was always in a certain sense, an absolutist, in a certain sense, arrogant,” says Robert White, a former US ambassador to El Salvador, who later worked as an adviser to the deposed Haitian leader during his years in exile in the US.

Ms Fuller says: “When Aristide came back, he seemed to be more and more focused on staying in power and in particular getting 100% control over things in Haiti.

“This led him to isolate himself from his critics, to surround himself with people who were yes men, and to be more and more suspicious of people outside his immediate circle.”

Those within that immediate circle, Mr Aristide’s critics say, used the privileges of office to amass personal fortunes.

Human rights groups say the president formed a powerful militia to attack opponents – targeting in particular the independent media.

Many of those who had previously backed him were appalled when he crudely manipulated the 2000 elections to secure 92% of the votes for the presidency.

“One should recognise that Aristide is in fact a populist and so, while he may have a very progressive discourse, I don’t think he ever really had it in mind to carry out very drastic political and economic changes to Haitian society,” says Charles Arthur, a writer on Haiti.


But the nagging question remains of what turned this former champion of the poor into a repressive and isolated leader.

Some observers blame the strong-man political culture of Haiti that stretches back to the country’s first black ruler, a former slave who declared himself emperor.

“Presidentialitis” is what it has been called, says Robert McGuire of Trinity College, Washington.

He says that Mr Aristide was merely part of a tradition of an “all powerful leader, who everyone is subordinate to and who makes all the decisions”.