An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide
In the mid-1980s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a parish priest working in an impoverished and embattled district of Port-au-Prince. He became the spokesman of a growing popular movement against the series of military regimes that ruled Haiti after the collapse in 1986 of the Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990 he won the country’s first democratic presidential election, with 67 per cent of the vote. He was overthrown by a military coup in September 1991 and returned to power in 1994, after the US intervened to restore democratic government. In 1996 he was succeeded by his ally René Préval. Aristide won another landslide election victory in 2000, but the resistance of Haiti’s small ruling elite eventually culminated in a second coup against him, on the night of 28 February 2004. Since then, he has been living in exile in South Africa.
According to the best available estimates, around five thousand of Aristide’s supporters have died at the hands of the regime that replaced the constitutional government. Although the situation remains tense and UN troops still occupy the country, the worst of the violence came to an end in February 2006, when after an extraordinary electoral campaign, René Préval was himself re-elected in a landslide victory. Calls for Aristide’s immediate and unconditional return continue to polarise Haitian politics. Many commentators, including several prominent members of the current government, believe that if Aristide was free to stand for re-election he would win easily.
This interview was conducted in French, in Pretoria, on 20 July 2006.
Peter Hallward: Haiti is a profoundly divided country, and you have always been a profoundly divisive figure. For most of the 1990s many sympathetic observers found it easy to make sense of this division more or less along class lines: you were demonised by the rich, and idolised by the poor. But your second administration was dogged by accusations of violence and corruption. Although you remained the most popular politician among the electorate, you appeared to have lost much of the support you once enjoyed among aid-workers, activists, intellectuals and so on, both at home and abroad.
I’d like to ask about the process that first brought you to power. How do you account for the fact that, against the odds, and certainly against the wishes of the US, the military and the ruling establishment in Haiti, you were able to win the election of 1990?
Jean-Bertrand Aristide: Much of the work had already been done by people who came before me, people like Father Antoine Adrien and his co-workers, and Father Jean-Marie Vincent, who was assassinated in 1994. They had developed a progressive theological vision that resonated with the hopes and expectations of the Haitian people. Already in 1979 I was working in the context of liberation theology, and there is one phrase in particular that may help summarise my understanding of how things stood. The Conferencia de Puebla took place in Mexico in 1979, and several liberation theologians were threatened and barred from attending. The slogan I’m thinking of ran something like this: si el pueblo no va a Puebla, Puebla se quedará sin pueblo. ‘If the people cannot go to Puebla, Puebla will remain cut off from the people.’ In other words, it isn’t a matter of struggling for the people, on behalf of the people, at a distance from the people; it’s a matter of struggling with and in the midst of the people.
This ties in with a second principle: liberation theology can itself only be a phase in a broader process. The phase in which we may have to speak on behalf of the impoverished and the oppressed comes to an end as they start to speak in their own voice and with their own words. The whole process carries us a long way from paternalism, from any notion of a ‘saviour’ who might come to guide the people and solve their problems.
The emergence of the people as an organised public force was already taking place in Haiti in the 1980s, and by 1986 this force was strong enough to push the Duvalier dictatorship from power. It was a grass-roots movement, not a top-down project driven by a single leader or a single organisation. It wasn’t exclusively political, either. It took shape above all through the constitution, all over the country, of many small church communities or ti legliz. When I was elected president it wasn’t the election of a politician, or a conventional political party; it was an expression of the mobilisation of the people as a whole. For the first time, the national palace became a place not just for professional politicians but for the people. Welcoming people from the poorest sections of Haitian society within the centre of traditional power – this was a profoundly transformative gesture.
PH: The coup of September 1991 took place even though the policies you pursued once in office were quite moderate, quite cautious. So was a coup inevitable? Was the simple presence of someone like you in the presidential palace intolerable for the Haitian elite? And in that case, could more have been done to anticipate and try to withstand the backlash?
JBA: What happened in September 1991 happened again in February 2004, and could easily happen again soon, so long as the oligarchy who control the means of repression use them to preserve a hollow version of democracy. This is their obsession: to maintain a situation that might be called ‘democratic’, but which consists in fact of a superficial, imported democracy imposed and controlled from above. They’ve been able to keep things this way for a long time. Haiti has been independent for two hundred years, but we now live in a country in which just 1 per cent of the people control more than half of the wealth.
PH: For all its strength, the popular movement that carried you to the presidency wasn’t strong enough to keep you there. People sometimes compare you to Toussaint L’Ouverture, who won extraordinary victories under extraordinary constraints – but Toussaint is also often criticised for failing to go far enough. It was Dessalines who led the final fight for independence. How do you answer those who say you were too moderate, that you acted like Toussaint in a situation that really called for Dessalines? What do you say to those who claim you put too much faith in the US and its allies?
JBA: ‘Too much faith in the US’: that makes me smile. Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a man, had his limitations. But he did his best, and in reality he did not fail. He was captured, imprisoned and killed; but his example and his spirit still guide us now. These last two years, from 2004 to 2006, the Haitian people have continued to stand up for their dignity and refused to capitulate. On 6 July 2005, Cité Soleil was attacked and bombarded, but this, and many similar attacks, didn’t discourage people from insisting that their voices be heard. They spoke out against injustice. They voted for their president this past February; they won’t accept the imposition of another president from abroad or above.
This doesn’t mean that success is inevitable or easy, that powerful vested interests won’t try to do all they can to turn the clock back. Nevertheless, something irreversible has been achieved, something that works its way through the collective consciousness. This is the meaning of Toussaint’s famous claim, after he had been captured by the French, that they had cut down the trunk of the tree of liberty but that its roots remained deep.
As for Dessalines, the struggle that he led was armed, and necessarily so, since he had to break the bonds of slavery once and for all. But our struggle is different. It is Toussaint, rather than Dessalines, who can accompany the popular movement today. It’s this inspiration that was at work in the election victory of February 2006, which allowed the people to outmanoeuvre their opponents, to choose their own leader in the face of the powers that be.
Did we place too much trust in the Americans? Were we too dependent on external forces? No. It would be mere demagoguery for a Haitian president to pretend to be stronger than the Americans, or to engage them in a constant war of words, or to oppose them for opposing’s sake. The only rational course is to weigh up the relative balance of interests, to figure out what the Americans want, to remember what we want, and to make the most of the available points of convergence. In 1994, Clinton needed a foreign policy victory, and a return to democracy in Haiti offered him that opportunity; we needed an instrument to overcome the resistance of the murderous Haitian army, and Clinton offered us that instrument. We never had any illusions that the Americans shared our deeper objectives. But without them we couldn’t have restored democracy.
PH: There was no alternative to reliance on American troops?
JBA: No. The Haitian people are not armed. There are criminals and vagabonds, drug dealers, gangs who have weapons, but the people have no weapons. You’re kidding yourself if you think that the people can wage an armed struggle. It’s pointless to wage a struggle on your enemies’ terrain, or to play by their rules. You will lose.
PH: Did you pay too high a price for American support? They forced you to make all kinds of compromise, to accept many of the things you’d always opposed – a severe structural adjustment plan, neoliberal economic policies, the privatisation of state enterprises etc. The Haitian people suffered a great deal under these constraints. It must have been very difficult to swallow these things, during the negotiations of 1993.
JBA: In 1993, the Americans were perfectly happy to agree to a negotiated economic plan. When they insisted, via the IMF and other international financial institutions, on the privatisation of state enterprises, I was prepared to agree in principle – but I refused simply to sell them off, unconditionally, to private investors. That there was corruption in the state sector was undeniable, but there were several different ways of engaging with it. Rather than untrammelled privatisation, I was prepared to agree to a democratisation of these enterprises, so that some of the profits of a factory or firm should go to the people who worked for it, be invested in nearby schools or health clinics, so that the workers’ children could derive some benefit. The Americans said fine, no problem.
But when I was back in office, they went back on our agreement, and then relied on a disinformation campaign to make it look as if I had broken my word. It’s not true. The accords we signed are there, people can judge for themselves. Unfortunately we didn’t have the means to win the public relations fight.
PH: What about your battle with the Haitian army, the army that overthrew you in 1991? The Americans remade this army in 1915 in line with their own priorities, and it had acted as a force for the protection of those priorities ever since. You were able to disband it just months after your return in 1994, but the way it was handled remains controversial, and you were never able fully to demobilise and disarm the soldiers.
JBA: We had an army of some 7000 soldiers, and it absorbed 40 per cent of the national budget. Since 1915, it had served as an army of internal occupation. It never fought an external enemy. It murdered thousands of our people. Why did we need such an army, rather than a suitably trained police force?
We organised a social programme for the reintegration of disbanded soldiers. They too have the right to work, and the state has a responsibility to respect that right – all the more so when you know that if they don’t find work, they will be more easily tempted to turn to violence, or theft, as the Tontons Macoutes did. We did the best we could. The problem lay with the resentment of those who were determined to preserve the status quo. They had plenty of money and weapons, and they work hand in hand with the most powerful military machine on the planet. It was easy for them to win over some former soldiers, to train and equip them in the Dominican Republic and then use them to destabilise the country. But it wasn’t a mistake to disband the army. It’s not as if we might have avoided the second coup, in 2004, if we’d hung on to it. On the contrary, if the army had remained in place, René Préval would never have finished his first term in office, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold out for three years, from 2001 to 2004.
Unlike the previous coups, the coup of 2004 wasn’t undertaken by the ‘Haitian’ army, acting on the orders of our little oligarchy, in line with the interests of foreign powers. No, this time these all-powerful interests had to carry out the job themselves, with their own troops and in their own name.
PH: Did the creation of the Fanmi Lavalas party in 1996 serve a similar function, by helping to clarify the lines of internal conflict that had already fractured the loose coalition of forces that first brought you to power?[*] Almost the whole of Préval’s first administration was hampered by infighting. Did you set out, then, to create a unified, disciplined party, one that could deliver a coherent political programme?
JBA: No, that’s not the way it happened. In the first place, by training and by inclination I was a teacher, not a politician. I had no experience of party politics, and was happy to leave to others the task of developing a party organisation, of training party members, and so on. I was happy to leave this to career politicians, to people like Gérard Pierre-Charles, and along with others, he began working along these lines as soon as democracy was restored. He helped found the Organisation Politique Lavalas (OPL) and I encouraged people to join it. This party won the 1995 elections, and by the time I finished my term in office, in February 1996, it had a majority in parliament. But after the elections the OPL started to fall into the traditional patterns and practices of Haitian politics. It became more closed in on itself, more distant from the people, more willing to make empty promises. I was out of office, and stayed on the sidelines. But a group of priests who were active in the Lavalas movement became frustrated, and wanted to restore a more meaningful link with the people. At this point, in 1996, the group of those who felt this way, who were unhappy with the OPL, were known as la nébuleuse – they were in an uncertain and confusing position. Over time, more and more people became more and more dissatisfied with the situation.
We engaged in long discussions about what to do, and Fanmi Lavalas grew out of these discussions. It emerged from the people themselves. It never conceived of itself as a conventional political party. If you look through the organisation’s constitution, you’ll see that the word ‘party’ never comes up. In Haiti we don’t have a positive experience of political parties; parties have always been instruments of manipulation and betrayal. On the other hand, we have a long and positive experience of popular organisations – the ti legliz, for instance.
By 1997, Fanmi Lavalas had emerged as a functional organisation, with a clear constitution. In spite of the aid embargo we managed to accomplish certain things. We were able to invest in education, for instance. In 1990, there were only 34 secondary schools in Haiti; by 2001 there were 138. We built a new university at Tabarre, a new medical school. Although it had to run on a shoestring, the literacy programme we launched in 2001 was also working well; Cuban experts who helped us manage it were confident that by December 2004 we’d have reduced the rate of adult illiteracy to just 15 per cent, a small fraction of what it was a decade earlier. Previous governments had never seriously tried to invest in education, and it’s clear that our programme was always going to be a threat to the status quo. The elite want nothing to do with popular education, for obvious reasons.
PH: Fanmi Lavalas duly won an overwhelming victory in the legislative elections of May 2000, with around 75 per cent of the vote. But your enemies in the US and at home soon drew attention to the fact that the method used to calculate the number of votes needed to win some senate seats in a single round of voting (i.e. without the need for a run-off election between the two most popular candidates) was at least controversial, if not illegitimate. They jumped on this in order to cast doubt on the validity of the election victory itself, and used it to justify an immediate suspension of international loans and aid, which effectively cut your government’s budget in half. Soon after your own second term in office began in February 2001, the winners of these seats were persuaded to stand down, pending a further round of elections. Wouldn’t it have been better to resolve the matter more quickly, to avoid giving the Americans a pretext to undermine your administration before it even began?
JBA: You say that we ‘gave’ the Americans a pretext. In reality the Americans created their own pretext, and if it hadn’t been this it would have been something else. It took the US 58 years to recognise Haiti’s independence. Their priorities haven’t changed, and today’s American policy is more or less consistent with the way it’s always been. The coup of September 1991 was undertaken with the support of the US administration, and in February 2004 it happened again, thanks to many of the same people.
The US was having trouble persuading the other leaders in Caricom [the Caribbean Community and Common Market] to turn against us (they were never able to persuade many of them), and they needed a pretext that was easy to understand. ‘Tainted elections’ was the perfect card to play. But when they came to observe the elections, they said ‘very good, no problem’: the process was judged peaceful and fair. And then as the results came in, in order to undermine our victory, they asked questions about the way the votes were counted. But I had nothing to do with this. I wasn’t a member of the government, and I had no influence over the Provisional Electoral Council, which alone has the authority to decide on these matters. The CEP is a sovereign, independent body. Then, once I had been re-elected, and the Americans demanded that I dismiss these senators, what was I supposed to do? The constitution doesn’t give the president the power to dismiss senators who were elected in keeping with the protocol decided by the CEP. Can you imagine a situation like this in the US? What would happen if a foreign government insisted that the president dismiss an elected senator? It’s absurd. The whole situation is simply racist; they impose conditions on us that they would never contemplate imposing on a ‘properly’ independent country, on a white country.
The Americans wanted to use the legislature against the executive. They hoped that I would be stupid enough to insist on the dismissal of the senators. I refused. In 2001, as a gesture of goodwill, the senators chose to resign on the assumption that they would contest new elections as soon as the opposition was prepared to participate in them. But the Americans failed to turn the senate and the parliament against the presidency, and it soon became clear that the opposition had no interest in new elections. Once this tactic failed, however, the US recruited or bought off a few hotheads, including Dany Toussaint and company, and used them, a little later, against the presidency.
PH: In the press, meanwhile, you came to be presented not as the unequivocal winner of legitimate elections, but as an increasingly tyrannical autocrat.
JBA: Exactly. A lot of the $200 million or so in aid and development money that was suspended when we won the elections in 2000 was diverted to a propaganda and destabilisation campaign waged against our government and against Fanmi Lavalas.
PH: Soon after the results were declared in May 2000, the head of the CEP, Leon Manus, fled the country, claiming that the results were invalid and that you and Préval had put pressure on him to calculate the votes in a particular way. Why did he come to embrace the American line?
JBA: Well, I don’t want to judge Leon Manus. I don’t know what happened exactly. But I think he acted in the same way as some of the leaders of the Group of 184.[†] They are beholden to a patrón, a boss. The boss is American, a white American; and you are black. Don’t underestimate the inferiority complex that still so often conditions these relationships. You are black, but sometimes you get to feel whiter than white, if you’re willing to get down on your knees in front of the whites. This is a psychological legacy of slavery: to lie for the white man isn’t really lying at all, since white men don’t lie [laughs]. If I lie for the whites I’m not really lying, I’m just repeating what they say. So I imagine Leon Manus felt like this when he repeated the lie that they wanted him to repeat. Don’t forget, his journey out of the country began in a car with diplomatic plates, and he arrived in Santo Domingo on an American helicopter.
PH: Why were these people so aggressively hostile to you and your government? There’s something hysterical about the positions taken by the so-called Convergence Démocratique, and later by the Group of 184, by people like Gérard Pierre-Charles. They refused all compromise, they insisted on all sorts of conditions before they would even consider participating in another round of elections. The Americans seemed exasperated with them, but made no real effort to rein them in.
JBA: It was never really about me, it’s got nothing to do with me as an individual. They detest and despise the people. They refuse absolutely to acknowledge that everyone is equal. So when they behave in this way, part of the reason is to reassure themselves that they are different. It’s essential that they see themselves as better than others. I’m convinced it’s bound up with the legacy of slavery, with an inherited contempt for the common people, for the petits nègres. It’s the psychology of apartheid: it’s better to get down on your knees with whites than to stand shoulder to shoulder with blacks. Don’t underestimate the depth of this contempt. One of the first things we did in 1991 was abolish the classification, on birth certificates, of people who were born outside Port-au-Prince as ‘peasants’. This kind of classification, and all sorts of things that went along with it, served to maintain a system of rigid exclusion. It served to keep people out, to treat them as moun andeyo – ‘people from outside’. People under the table. This is what I mean by the mentality of apartheid, and it runs very deep.
PH: What about your own willingness to work alongside people compromised by their past, for instance your inclusion of former Duvalierists in your second administration? Was that an easy decision to take?
JBA: No it wasn’t easy, but I saw it as a necessary evil. Take Marc Bazin, for instance. He was minister of finance under Duvalier. I only turned to Bazin because my opponents in Convergence Démocratique, in the OPL and so on, refused to participate in the government.
Their objective was to scupper the entire process, and they said no straightaway. I wanted a democratic government, and so I set out to make it as inclusive as I could, under the circumstances. Since the Convergence wasn’t willing to participate, I invited people from sectors that had little or no representation in parliament to have a voice in the administration, to occupy some ministerial positions and to keep a balance between the legislative and executive branches of government.
PH: This must have been very controversial. Bazin not only worked for Duvalier, he was your opponent back in 1990.
JBA: Yes, it was controversial, and I didn’t take the decision alone. We talked about it at length, we held meetings, looking for a compromise. Some were for, some were against, and in the end there was a majority who accepted that we couldn’t afford to work alone, that we needed to demonstrate we were willing and able to work with people who clearly weren’t pro-Lavalas. We had already published a well-defined political programme, and if they were willing to co-operate on this or that aspect, then we were willing to work with them.
PH: You were often accused of being intolerant of dissent, too determined to get your own way. But what do you say to those who argue instead that the real problem was just the opposite, that you were too tolerant? You allowed ex-soldiers to call openly and repeatedly for the reconstitution of the army. You allowed self-appointed leaders of ‘civil society’ to do everything in their power to disrupt your government. You allowed radio stations to sustain a relentless campaign of disinformation. You allowed demonstrations to go on day after day, calling for you to be overthrown, and many of the demonstrators were directly funded and organised by your enemies in the US.
JBA: Well, this is what democracy requires. Either you allow for the free expression of diverse opinions or you don’t. If people aren’t free to demonstrate and to give voice to their demands there is no democracy. I knew our position was strong in parliament, and that the great majority of the people were behind us. A small minority opposed us. Their foreign connections, their business interests, and so on, make them powerful. Nevertheless they have the right to protest, to articulate their demands, just like anyone else.
PH: The most serious and frequent accusation that was made by the demonstrators, and repeated by your critics abroad, is that you resorted to violence in order to hang on to power, that, as the pressure on your government grew, you started to rely on armed gangs from the slums, so-called chimères, and used them to intimidate and in some cases murder your opponents.
JBA: As soon as you look rationally at what was going on, these accusations don’t even begin to stand up. Several things have to be kept in mind. First of all, the police had been working under an embargo for several years. We weren’t able to buy bullet-proof vests or tear-gas canisters. The police were severely underequipped, and were often simply unable to control a demonstration or confrontation. Some of our opponents, some of the demonstrators who sought to provoke violent confrontations, knew this perfectly well. It was common knowledge that while the police were running out of ammunition and supplies, heavy weapons were being smuggled to our opponents through the Dominican Republic. The people knew this, and didn’t like it. They started getting nervous, with good reason. The provocations didn’t let up, and there were isolated acts of violence. Was this violence justified? No. I condemned it. I condemned it consistently. But with the limited means at our disposal, how could we prevent every outbreak of violence? There was a lot of provocation, a lot of anger, and there was no way that we could ensure that each and every citizen would refuse violence. But there was never any deliberate encouragement of violence.
As for the chimères, this is clearly another expression of our apartheid mentality, the word says it all. Chimères are people who are impoverished, who live in a state of profound insecurity and chronic unemployment. They are the victims of structural injustice, of systematic social violence. And they are among the people who voted for this government, who appreciated what the government was doing and had done, in spite of the embargo. It’s not surprising that they should confront those who have always benefited from this same social violence, once those people had started actively seeking to undermine their government.
Again, this doesn’t justify occasional acts of violence, but where does the real responsibility lie? Who are the real victims of violence here? How many members of the elite, how many members of the opposition’s many political parties, were killed by chimères? How many? Who are they? Meanwhile, powerful economic interests were quite happy to fund criminal gangs, to put weapons in the hands of vagabonds, in Cité Soleil and elsewhere, in order to create disorder and blame it on Fanmi Lavalas. These same people also paid journalists to present the situation in a certain way, and among other things promised them visas – recently, some of them who are now living in France admitted having been told what to say in order to get their visas. So you have people who were financing misinformation, on the one hand, and destabilisation, on the other, and who encouraged small groups of hoodlums to sow panic on the streets, to create the impression of a government losing control.
As if all this wasn’t enough, rather than allow police munitions to get through to Haiti, rather than send arms and equipment to strengthen the government, the Americans sent them to their proxies in the Dominican Republic instead. You only have to look at who these people were – people like Jodel Chamblain, a convicted criminal, who escaped justice in Haiti to be welcomed by the US, and who then armed and financed these ‘freedom fighters’ waiting over the border in the Dominican Republic. That’s what really happened. We didn’t arm the chimères, the US armed Chamblain and Philippe. The hypocrisy is extraordinary. And then when it comes to 2004-6, suddenly all this indignant talk of violence falls silent. As if nothing had happened. People were being herded into containers and dropped into the sea. That counts for nothing. The endless attacks on Cité Soleil, they count for nothing. I could go on and on. Thousands have died. But they don’t count, because they are just chimères, after all.
PH: What about people in your entourage such as Dany Toussaint, your former chief of security, who was accused of all kinds of violence and intimidation?
JBA: He was working for them from the beginning, and we were taken in. Of course I regret this. But it wasn’t hard for the Americans or their proxies to infiltrate the government, to infiltrate the police. We weren’t able to provide the police with the equipment they needed, we could hardly pay them an adequate salary. It was easy for our opponents to stir up trouble, to co-opt some policemen. This was incredibly difficult to control.
PH: Dany Toussaint wasn’t willing to talk to me when I was in Port-au-Prince a couple of months ago. It’s intriguing that the people who were clamouring for his arrest while you were still in power were then suddenly quite happy to leave him in peace once he had come out against you in December 2003, and once they themselves were in power. But can you prove that he was working for or with them all along?
JBA: It won’t be easy to document, I accept that. There’s a proverb in Creole that says twou manti pa fon: ‘lies don’t run very deep.’ Sooner or later the truth will out. There are plenty of things that were happening at the time that only recently have started to come to light.
PH: You mean things like the eventual public admissions, made over the past year or so by the rebel leaders Remissainthe Ravix and Guy Philippe, about the extent of their long-standing collaboration with the Convergence Démocratique, with the Americans?
PH: Let’s turn now to what happened in February 2004. There are wildly different versions of what happened in the run-up to your expulsion from the country. How much support did Guy Philippe’s rebels really have? And surely there was little chance that they could take the capital itself, in the face of the many thousands of people who were ready to defend it?
JBA: There had been recent attempts at a coup, one in July 2001, with an attack on the police academy, and another a few months later, in December 2001, with an incursion into the national palace. They didn’t succeed, and on both occasions the rebels were forced to flee the city. They only just managed to escape. It wasn’t the police alone who chased them away, it was a combination of the police and the people. So the rebels knew they couldn’t take Port-au-Prince. So they hesitated, on the outskirts, some 40 kilometres away. We had nothing to fear. The balance of forces was in our favour. There are occasions when large groups of people are more powerful than heavy machine-guns and automatic weapons. And Port-au-Prince, a city with so many national and international interests, was different from more isolated places like Saint-Marc or Gonaïves. There was no great insurrection: there was a small group of soldiers, heavily armed, who were able to overwhelm some police stations, kill some policemen and create a certain amount of havoc. The police had run out of ammunition, and were no match for the rebels’ M16s. But the city was a different story. The people were ready, and I wasn’t worried.
Meanwhile, on 29 February a shipment of police munitions that we had bought from South Africa, perfectly legally, was due to arrive in Port-au-Prince. This decided the matter. Already the balance of forces was against the rebels; on top of that, if the police were restored to something like their full operational capacity, then the rebels stood no chance.
PH: So at that point the Americans had no option but to go in and get you themselves, on the night of 28 February?
JBA: That’s right. They knew that in a few more hours, they would lose their opportunity to ‘resolve’ the situation. They grabbed their chance while they had it, and bundled us onto a plane in the middle of the night.
PH: The Americans – Ambassador Foley, Luis Moreno and so on – insist that you begged for their help, that they had to arrange a flight to safety at the last minute. Several reporters backed up their account. On the other hand, speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the American security guards who was on your plane that night told the Washington Post soon after the event that the US story was ‘just bogus’. Your personal security director, Frantz Gabriel, also confirms that you were kidnapped that night by US military personnel. Who are we supposed to believe?
JBA: You’re dealing with a country that was willing and able, in front of the UN and in front of the world at large, to fabricate claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They were willing to lie about issues of global importance. It’s hardly surprising that they were able to find a few people to say the things that needed to be said in Haiti, in a small country of no great strategic significance.
PH: They said they couldn’t send peacekeepers to help stabilise the situation, but as soon as you were gone, the troops arrived straightaway.
JBA: The plan was perfectly clear.
PH: In August and September 2005, in the run-up to the elections that finally took place in February 2006, there was a lot of discussion within Fanmi Lavalas about how to proceed. In the end, most of the rank and file threw their weight behind your old colleague, your ‘twin brother’ René Préval, but some members of the leadership opted to stand as candidates in their own right; others were even prepared to endorse Marc Bazin’s candidacy. It was a confusing situation, one that must have put great strain on the organisation, but you kept very quiet.
JBA: When we had to choose the electoral candidates for Fanmi Lavalas in 1999, the discussions at the Foundation [the Aristide Foundation for Democracy] would often run long into the night. Delegations would come from all over the country, and members of the cellules de base would argue for or against. Often it wasn’t easy to find a compromise, but this is how the process worked. So when it came to deciding on a new presidential candidate last year, I was confident that the discussion would proceed in the same way, even though by that stage many members of the organisation had been killed, and many more were in hiding, in exile or in prison. I made no declaration one way or another about what to do or who to support. I knew they would make the right decision in their own way. A lot of the things ‘I’ decided, as president, were in reality decided this way: the decision didn’t originate with me, but with them. It was with their words that I spoke.
PH: How do you envisage the future? Can there be any real change in Haiti without directly confronting the question of class privilege and power, without finding some way of overcoming the resistance of the dominant class?
JBA: We will have to confront these things, one way or another. The sine qua non for doing this is obviously the participation of the people. Once the people are genuinely able to participate in the democratic process, then they will be able to devise an acceptable way forward. In any case the process itself is irreversible. It’s irreversible at the mental level. Members of the impoverished sections of Haitian society now have an experience of democracy, and they will not allow a government or a candidate to be imposed on them. They demonstrated this in February 2006, and I know they will keep on demonstrating it. Everything comes back, in the end, to the simple principle that tout moun se moun – every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves. Those who don’t accept this, when they look at the nègres of Haiti – and consciously or unconsciously, that’s what they see – they see people who are too poor, too crude, too uneducated, to think for themselves. They see people who need others to make their decisions for them. It’s a colonial mentality, in fact, and still very widespread among our political class. It’s also a projection: they project onto the people a sense of their own inadequacy, their own inequality in the eyes of the master.
February 2006 shows how much has been gained, it shows how far down the path of democracy we have come, even after the coup, even after two years of ferocious violence and repression. What remains unclear is how long it will take. We may move forward fairly quickly, if through their mobilisation the people encounter interlocutors who are willing to listen, to enter into dialogue with them. If they don’t find them, it will take longer. From 1993 to 1994, for instance, there were people in the US government who were willing to listen at least a little, and this helped the democratic process to move forward. Since 2000 we’ve had to deal with a US administration that is diametrically opposed to its predecessor, and everything slowed down dramatically, or went into reverse. The problem isn’t simply a Haitian one. We still need to develop new ways of reducing and eventually eliminating our dependence on foreign powers.
PH: And your own next step? I know you’re still hoping to get back to Haiti as soon as possible: any progress there? What are your own priorities now?
JBA: It’s a matter of judging when the time is right, of judging the security and stability of the situation. The South African government has welcomed us here as guests, not as exiles; by helping us so generously they have made their contribution to peace and stability in Haiti. And once the conditions are right we’ll go back. As soon as René Préval judges that the time is right then I’ll go back.
PH: You have no further plans to play some sort of role in politics?
JBA: I’ve often been asked this question, and my answer hasn’t changed. There are different ways of serving the people. Participation in the politics of the state isn’t the only way. Before 1990 I served the people, from outside the structure of the state. I will serve the people again, from outside the structure of the state. My first vocation was teaching. One of the great achievements of our second administration was the construction of the University of Tabarre, which was built entirely under embargo but in terms of its infrastructure became the largest university in Haiti (since 2004, it has been occupied by foreign troops). I would like to go back to teaching. As for politics, I never had any interest in becoming a political leader ‘for life’. That was Duvalier: president for life. A political organisation consists of its members, it isn’t the instrument of one man. Fanmi Lavalas needs to become more professional, it needs to have more internal discipline; the democratic process needs properly functional political parties, parties in the plural. So I will not dominate or lead the organisation, that is not my role, but I will contribute what I can.
[*] Lavalas is a Creole word meaning ‘flood’, ‘avalanche’, a ‘mass of people’ or ‘everyone together’. Fanmi means ‘family’.
[†] A group of businessmen and professionals, backed and organised by the International Republican Institute, which was founded in December 2002 more or less explicitly to get rid of Aristide.