Originally: Critic: ‘He Totally Lost Focus’

March 1, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In the days before democracy, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a charismatic priest preaching political reform in Haiti’s desperate slums, he would denounce presidential aspirants as “sick.”

“They have presidentitis,” the diminutive orator would say, characterizing the ailment as one marked by delusions of grandeur and an insatiable desire for power. After Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president, many would conclude that he, too, suffered from the disease and had become as bad as, if not worse than, the dictatorial regimes he once defied from the pulpit.

It was a humbling fall from the heady days of December 1990, when Aristide, then 37, won presidential elections with a more than two-thirds majority. In a nation brutalized by decades of military coups and dictatorships, including the 29-year rule of the Duvalier dynasty, Aristide emerged like a savior for the impoverished masses.

“He was magnificent,” said Jean-Claude Bajeaux, who served in Aristide’s cabinet and who compared his preaching style to that of Martin Luther King Jr. And as Haiti prepared for its first free election, in 1990, Aristide emerged as the clear choice to defeat Roger LaFontant, the one-time leader of the feared Tonton Macoutes militia that had enforced the Duvalier reign of terror.

“We realized we needed to find someone who could appeal to the people,” Bajeaux said. “Aristide knew how to move the people. He knew how to get them excited.”

Despite his impoverished roots and unassuming appearance, Aristide, the son of a farmer who was lynched when Aristide was an infant, seemed destined for leadership from the moment he became an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1982. His sermons earned him the adoration of the masses, who dubbed him Pe Titid, Little Priest in Creole. Throughout the 1980s, when few dared speak out against dictatorships, Aristide used the pulpit to denounce them and showed no fear of the consequences.

On Sept. 11, 1988, 13 of his parishioners died and scores were injured when attackers burst into the church where Aristide was preaching, raked it with gunfire, then burned it to the ground. Aristide was whisked to safety. The incident galvanized Aristide’s followers and enhanced his image.

It was an image that grew with successive attempts to silence Aristide: his expulsion from the church’s conservative Salesian order, which opposed his political activism; his survival of an apparent coup attempt in 1991 just weeks after taking office; his ouster in a military takeover a few months later.

When, after three years in exile in the United States, Aristide was returned to power by the U.S. government, Haitians celebrated the end of the junta that had ruled in his absence. The euphoria didn’t last long. Critics accused Aristide of adopting an autocratic style alarmingly similar to his predecessors and of failing to keep the promises of democracy and economic revival.

Political opponents were jailed or killed, corruption soared, and Aristide surrounded himself with gangs who protected him while leaving regular Haitians living in an increasingly lawless land, critics said. They accused him of using state money to pay high-priced lobbyists to influence backers around the world, most notably black American politicians.

Some critics, most of whom had once backed Aristide, say his weaknesses were clear from the start, that he was greedy for power, despite insisting he didn’t want it, and surrounded himself with yes-men rather than smart politicians.

Nevertheless, he was the best man for the job given his immense popularity during Haiti’s transition to democracy.

“A lot of us who were in the inner circle had our doubts, but we felt that the people were speaking so strongly in his favor,” said Clotilde Charlot, Aristide’s chief of staff during his years in exile in the United States. “We were convinced he would make a difference.”

Charlot, now an active Aristide critic and a founder of the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington think tank, believes Aristide’s years in exile sealed his failure as leader of the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation. He became caught up in his celebrity, she says.

Charlot said if Aristide had wanted to, he could have returned to Haiti earlier than October 1994. “He totally lost focus,” she said.

Even so, detractors supported his return to the presidency in 1994 to show that coups would no longer be accepted.

The constitution barred Aristide from running for a second straight term in 1995, but to many, the government that ruled until the next election in 2000 was little more than a puppet of Aristide. It was led by his close friend Rene Preval, who had served as his prime minister, and the election that put Preval in power with an overwhelming majority was boycotted by most opposition parties.

Similar opposition marked 2000 legislative and presidential elections, which international observers criticized as fraudulent and which prompted the United States to suspend aid to Haiti – a move some observers say made it impossible for Aristide to make reforms.

“He’s made other mistakes on his own, but that didn’t make his possibilities for successfully governing any easier,” said Rachel Farley of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “Obviously, one of the main problems in Haiti is the dire economic situation and the lack of jobs. Not a lot of economic progress has been made in Haiti, but it’s hard to blame that on Aristide when there was no aid flowing.”

Compounding the problem was a “very strong and unrelenting” opposition, said Robert Maguire, the director of International Affairs at Trinity College in Washington, who said Aristide deserves praise for disbanding Haiti’s army after his 1994 return to power and for presenting a political platform to Haitians for the first time. With the interruptions in his tenure and the turmoil that marked his time in office, though, he never had the time to clarify his long-term vision for the country, Maguire said.

One thing Aristide’s critics and supporters agree on was his success in involving Haitians of all social classes in politics. In the end, though, this may have been his undoing, for it was that unity that joined Haitians in their opposition to him, some observers say.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.