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Fall From Grace

Haiti needed more from Jean-Bertrand Aristide than he was able to deliver

March 07, 2004|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" and the novel "Martyr's Crossing." She translated a book of Aristide's speeches and writing, "In the Parish of the Poor: Writings From Haiti."

I've known Jean-Bertrand Aristide since 1986, though we're not on speaking terms right now. In Haiti in the old days, his enemies pointed trembling fingers at me, accusing me of being responsible for his rise to power. Now his supporters are also pointing, accusing me of being responsible for his downfall. But they're wrong on both counts.

I met Aristide by accident. I had wanted to meet a Catholic bishop for an article I was writing in the heady, crazed days immediately following Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's overthrow in 1986, but the bishops in Haiti weren't talking to the press back then. When I explained to my Haitian fixer that the church was stonewalling me, he had an idea.

"I know who you can see," he said, and he drove me careening in my rented car to St. Jean Bosco, a little white and blue church in the La Saline shantytown, a pit of misery on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

"You can meet this guy," my guide told me as he walked me into the courtyard.

"But who is he?" I asked -- I was on deadline.

"Oh, he's good," my guide said. "Just wait."

So began the first of my many long waits for Aristide. When the parish priest finally emerged into the courtyard, I was unimpressed. He appeared to be almost a child -- tiny, google-eyed and bespectacled. He looked like a cross between E.T. and Poindexter, and yet he was appealing. When he sat on the cloister balustradeter, his feet didn't touch the ground as he swung his legs, speaking in perfect French about the future of Haiti. I asked him about his role in the fall of Duvalier, against whom he had been preaching for some time.

"What we are doing is trying to get a better life," he said, gesturing to a group of young men who stood eagerly around us, smiling and nodding. "To you, what we have in Haiti may look like a new government, a new face, new symbols. But to us, we see Duvalier's face when we look at [the leader of the interim junta]. What we have now is Duvalierism without Duvalier.... This is not the end of the affair, not by a long shot." He was focused and intense.

Aristide led an unusual life: He slept only four hours a night; conducted perpetual meetings with friends, parishioners, supporters, journalists; ate on the fly; never drank. The digital wristwatch he had then went off every half hour, and he was still never on time. He loved music and wrote poetry. In public, he was vituperative and fiery and bitter, but he had a wicked sense of humor.

Aristide was the only religious figure I ever encountered who regularly made his listeners laugh. These were hungry people from the slums, sitting on hard benches in the oppressive Haitian heat, squished shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh -- and still they were laughing. He could turn anything into a metaphor and use it for his own ends: A big black moth flying blindly around the apse was the old regime. In a country renowned for its speakers and its storytellers, its jokes and parables and proverbs, he was a brilliant Creole orator, perhaps the greatest of them all.

A few months after my article was finished, I began work on a book about Haiti and returned to live there. There was no question in my mind that Aristide was central to the country's future and would be central to my book as well. You could sense destiny all around him; ambition and righteousness were his guides. He was a beacon in troubled, complicated times.

Haiti was in terrible turmoil in the years following Duvalier's ouster, and Aristide seemed to be at the center of every event; he was the climax, the catharsis, the denouement. He was the national lightning rod.

Several times there were assassination attempts that forced him into hiding. Each time, he was at first incommunicado. And then, when he reappeared, he was frail, skeletal, weak, a sight that caused grandmothers to weep and faint. Even if his injury was as small as a scratch on the knee, he worked it -- limping and supported on either side by congregants.

He was a victim, he played the role brilliantly and Haitians empathized, because in their poverty and hunger, their joblessness and political disenfranchisement, they identified with a victim.

Aristide also saw something positive in the assassination attempts: His surviving them had convinced people that he was somehow protected. "They believe that I can't be hurt," he told me. "It makes a hired killer a little reluctant to take me on.... The odds are, he thinks, that I will survive, and he will be punished. He thinks there is a powerful force keeping me safe."

"Is there?" I asked him.

He smiled. "You be the judge."

I believe now that the powerful force protecting him at the time was the passionate backing of the Haitian people.

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