Originally: Jean-Bertrand Duvalier

December 3, 2005

For the past year and a half, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti, has been living in exile in South Africa as an honored guest of President Thabo Mbeki. All expenses are paid by the South African government. When Aristide first made his appearance on the international scene more than 15 years ago, many embraced him as the new leader of a Haiti emerging from years of bloody dictatorship. He was, so many thought, the new Mandela who would open new vistas for the Haitian people, caught up in their bleak and unremitting fate.

Aristide talked of peace where there was violence, and violence was a constant during the 29-year murderous rule of the Duvaliers. He spoke of reconciliation where there had been but fragmentation, instigated by the dictators who sought to rule by dividing further the already weak Haitian social fabric. In the exhilaration of the moment, many thought that there was no problem in Haiti that could not be resolved. After all, he even advocated an end to corruption, a permanent cancer in the Haitian social fabric. Sadly, the priest who acceded to government power turned into a mob leader. The language of reconciliation gave way to the “necklacing” of political opponents, the firebombing of radio stations, homes and offices of opponents, the murder of journalists like Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor, and the unwillingness to bring the criminals to justice. Hired thugs raped and kidnapped even the poorest of the poor in the slums that Aristide always pretended he was defending.

[Jean-Bertrand Aristide]

Just this last summer, two independent investigations of his misdeeds showed that tens of millions of dollars were siphoned off to phony addresses for fictitious purchases, most of which ending up in offshore accounts. Apparently, all the messianic figure from Cité Soleil wanted was to line his pockets and those of his accomplices.

Aristide bankrupted Teleco, the government-controlled telephone company that was the only real foreign-currency earner in Haiti. A profit of $60 million a year turned into a loss as he split the amount with Haitian, U.S. and Canadian “business partners,” including well-known companies who could not resist a fast buck, all well aware that the powerless Haitian people could not muster the resources to demand justice. Millions were taken from the already depleted coffers of one of the poorest countries, one with no viable health or education system, and where most of its 8.5 million people live on $1 a day. The new Mandela was but a poor copy of the Duvaliers. Literacy campaigns, health programs, infrastructure projects, democratic institutions — all were but empty slogans to mask the obscene reality of his rule.

For once, however, in a hopeful sign that despite setbacks the Haitian civil society is finally playing a role in shaping its future, the Haitian government is demanding justice for its people. It has filed suit in a Miami federal court seeking damages for the tens of millions stolen, for the schoolbooks that were not bought with the money that was not available, for the patients who were operated on without anesthesia because funds were in offshore bank accounts.

Meanwhile, Aristide’s presence as a privileged guest in South Africa is not only an embarrassment for the South African people, but also another injustice against their brothers in Haiti.

Mr. Peck, the director of the films “Lumumba” and “Sometimes in April,” served as Haiti’s culture minister from 1996 to 1997.