Aristide, Jean-Bertrand, Priest, politician – Born in 1953 in Port Salut in the south west, but spent much of his childhood in the poor quarters of Port-au-Prince. Aristide was educated by the Salesian Catholic order, graduated from the State University in 1979, ordained a priest in 1982, and continued his academic studies in Canada. He returned to Haiti in 1985, and was appointed priest of the St John Bosco parish in the downtown slum area of La Saline.
Jean-Bertrand founded a centre for homeless ‘street-children’, and preached “liberation theology” – a movement within the Catholic church that preaches spiritual fulfillment through social and political freedom. Became immensely popular among the Haitian poor when his sermons and speeches, urging the people to liberate themselves from poverty, apathy and squalor, were broadcast on radio. Escaped numerous assassination attempts, and emerged as charismatic leader of the grassroots movement to end with Duvalierism and create a new society in Haiti. As the standard bearer of the Lavalas movement for justice, transparency, and popular participation, he won a landslide victory in the 1990 presidential election.
After only eight months Jean-Bertrand was overthrown by a violent military coup d’état, and spent three years in exile before a United Nations military intervention restored him to office. International aid made available to Haiti was contingent on Aristide implementing a structural adjustment programme of privatisation, elimination of import tariffs, and downsizing the state administration. In his remaining 16 months in office he remained lukewarm about these reforms, but dismayed radical supporters by stressing the need for reconciliation with the Macoutes and the minority economic elite. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the abolition of the Haitian army in 1995.
Constitutionally barred from seeking a second consecutive term, he was succeeded as president by his former Prime Minister, René Préval, in February 1996. In March 1996, he started the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, an organisation that has impressed friend and foe by making interest free loans to thousands of small-businesses, and by distributing health care and educational materials.
During 1996, Aristide split with some former associates in the Lavalas movement, and formed a new political party, Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family). This party won nearly all the Parliamentary and local government seats in the May and July 2000 general elections. Aristide himself ran again for President in elections held at the end of November 2000. No serious opponents stood against him and he was elected with over 90% of votes cast. On 7 February 2001, he was inaugurated President of Haiti for the second time.
On 29 February 2004, Aristide and his family left Haiti in hotly disputed circumstances. Aristide claims he was taken out of the country against his will by representatives of the U.S. government, and that he was in fact the victim of another coup d’état. The US denies the charge and says Aristide resigned to save Port-au-Prince from the violent confrontation expected as armed opponents advanced from the north. Aristide spent some time in the Central African Republic, then Jamaica, and finally settled in South Africa. He has repeated his claims that he remains the legitimate president, and periodically congratulates his supporters for their continued resistance to the interim government.
Recommended reading – The Rainy Season: Haiti since the Duvaliers – Amy Wilentz