Introduction: In the mid 1980s,
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a young parish priest working in
an impoverished and embattled district of Haiti’s capital
city Port-au-Prince. A courageous champion of the rights and
dignity of the poor, he soon became the most widely respected
spokesman of a growing popular movement against the series of
military regimes that ruled Haiti after the collapse in 1986
of the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990 he won the country’s
first democratic presidential elections, with 67% of the vote.
Perceived as a dangerous threat by Haiti’s tiny ruling
elite, he was overthrown by a military coup in September 1991.
Conflict with that same elite and its army, backed by their
powerful allies in the U.S. and France, has shaped the whole
of Aristide’s political trajectory. After winning another
landslide election victory in 2000, his enemies launched a massive
propaganda campaign to portray him as violent and corrupt. Foreign
and elite resistance eventually culminated in a second coup
against him, the night of 28 February 2004. A personal and political
ally of the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki, Aristide then went into
a reluctant exile in South Africa, where he remains to this
Since his expulsion from Haiti three years ago
Aristide’s supporters have suffered the most brutal period
of violent oppression in the country’s recent history.
According to the best available estimates perhaps 5000 of them
died at the hands of the US- and UN-backed régime that
replaced the constitutional government in March 2004. Although
the situation remains tense and UN troops still occupy the country,
the worst of this violence came to an end in February 2006,
when after another extraordinary electoral campaign Aristide’s
old prime minister and ally René Préval (who succeeded
him as president in 1996) was himself re-elected in yet another
landslide victory. Calls for Aristide’s immediate and
unconditional return continue to polarize Haitian politics.
Many commentators, as well as some prominent members of the
current government, acknowledge that if the constitution allowed
Aristide to stand for re-election again then he would easily
Peter Hallward (PH): 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 demonized by the rich, and idolized by
the poor. But then things started to seem more complicated.
Rightly or wrongly, by the end of the decade, many of your original
supporters had become more skeptical, and from start to finish
your second administration (2001-2004) was dogged by accusations
of violence and corruption. Although by every available measure
you remained by far the most trusted and popular politician
among the Haitian electorate, you appeared to have lost much
of the support you once enjoyed among parts of the political
class, among aid-workers, activists, intellectuals and so on,
both at home and abroad. Most of my questions have to do with
these accusations, in particular the claim that as time went
on you compromised or abandoned many of your original ideals.
To begin with though, I’d like quickly
to go back over some familiar territory, and ask about the process
that first brought you to power back in 1990. The late 1980s
were a very reactionary period in world politics, especially
in Latin America. How do you account for the remarkable strength
and resilience of the popular movement against dictatorship
in Haiti, the movement that came to be known as lavalas (a Creole
word that means ‘flood’ or ‘avalanche’,
and also a ‘mass of people’, or ‘everyone
together’)? How do you account for the fact that, against
the odds and certainly against the wishes of the U.S., the military
and the whole ruling establishment in Haiti, you were able to
win the election of 1990?
Jean-Bertrand Aristide (JBA):
Much of the work had already been done by people who came before
me. I’m thinking of 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 remains
etched in my mind, and that may help summarize my understanding
of how things stood. You might remember that the Conferencia
de Puebla took place in Mexico, in 1979, and at the time several
liberation theologians were working under severe constraints.
They were threatened and barred from attending the conference.
And 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, for me the people remain at the
very core of our struggle. It isn’t a matter of struggling
for the people, on behalf of the people, at a distance from
the people; it is the people themselves who are struggling,
and it’s a matter of struggling with and in the midst
of the people.
This ties in with a second theological principle,
one that Sobrino, Boff and others understood very well. Liberation
theology can itself only be a phase in a broader process. The
phase in which we may first 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 people start to
assume their own place on the public stage. Liberation theology
then gives way to the liberation of theology. The whole process
carries us a long way from paternalism, a long way from any
notion of a ‘savior’ who might come to guide the
people and solve their problems. The priests who were inspired
by liberation theology at that time understood that our role
was to accompany the people, not to replace them.
The emergence of the people as an organized public
force, as a collective consciousness, 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 grassroots
popular movement, and not at all a top-down project driven by
a single leader or a single organization. It wasn’t an
exclusively political movement, either. It took shape above
all through the constitution, all over the country, of many
small church communities or ti legliz. It was these small communities
that played the decisive historical role. When I was elected
president it wasn’t a strictly political affair, it wasn’t
the election of a politician, of a conventional political party.
No, it was an expression of a broad popular movement, of the
mobilization 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 themselves. The simple fact of allowing ordinary
people to enter the palace, the simple fact of welcoming people
from the poorest sections of Haitian society within the very
center of traditional power - this was already a profoundly
PH: You hesitated for some time,
before agreeing to stand as a candidate in those 1990 elections.
You were perfectly aware of how, given the existing balance
of forces, participation in the elections might dilute or divide
the movement. Looking back at it now, do you still think it
was the right thing to do? Was there a viable alternative to
taking the parliamentary path?
JBA: I tend to think of history
as the ongoing crystallization of different sorts of variables.
Some of the variables are known, some are unknown. The variables
that we knew and understood at the time were clear enough. We
had some sense of what we were capable of, and we also knew
that those who sought to preserve the status quo had a whole
range of means at their disposal. They had all sorts of strategies
and mechanisms - military, economic, political... - for disrupting
any movement that might challenge their grip on power. But we
couldn’t know how exactly they would use them. They couldn’t
know this themselves. They were paying close attention to how
the people were struggling to invent ways of organizing themselves,
ways of mounting an effective challenge. This is what I mean
by unknown variables: the popular movement was in the process
of being invented and developed, under pressure, there and then,
and there was no way of knowing in advance the sort of counter-measures
it might provoke.
Now given the balance of these two sorts of variables,
I have no regrets. I regret nothing. In 1990, I was asked by
others in the movement to accept the cross that had fallen to
me. That’s how Father Adrien described it, and how I understood
it: I had to take up the burden of this cross. ‘You are
on the road to Calvary’, he said, and I knew he was right.
When I refused it at first, it was Monsignor Willy Romélus,
whom I trusted and still trust, as an elder and as a counselor,
who insisted that I had no choice. ‘Your life doesn’t
belong to you anymore’, he said. ‘You have given
it as a sacrifice for the people. And now that a concrete obligation
has fallen on you, now that you are faced with this particular
call to follow Jesus and take up your cross, think carefully
before you turn your back on it.’
This then is what I knew, and knew full well
at the time. It was a sort of path to Calvary. And once I had
decided, I accepted this path for what it was, without illusions,
without deluding myself. We knew perfectly well that we wouldn’t
be able to change everything, that we wouldn’t be able
to right every injustice, that we would have to work under severe
constraints, and so on.
Suppose I had said no, I won’t stand. How
would the people have reacted? I can still hear the echo of
certain voices that were asking, ‘let’s see now
if you have the courage to take this decision, let’s see
if you are too much of a coward to accept this task. You who
have preached such fine sermons, what are you going to do now?
Are you going to abandon us, or are you going to assume this
responsibility so that together we can move forward?’
And I thought about this. What was the best way to put the message
of the Gospels into practice? What was I supposed to do? I remember
how I answered that question, when a few days before the election
of December 1990, I went to commemorate the victims of the ruelle
de Vaillant massacre, where some twenty people were killed by
the Macoutes on the day of the aborted elections of November
1987. A student asked me: ‘Father, do you think that by
yourself you’ll be able to change this situation, which
is so corrupt and unjust?’ And in reply I said: ‘In
order for it to rain, do you need one or many raindrops? In
order to have a flood, do you need a trickle of water or a river
in spate?’ And I thanked him for giving me the chance
to present our collective mission in the form of this metaphor:
it is not alone, as isolated drops of water, that you or I are
going to change the situation but together, as a flood or torrent,
lavalassement, that we are going to change it, to clean things
up, without any illusions that it will be easy or quick.
So were there other alternatives? I don’t
know. What I’m sure of is that there was then an historic
opportunity, and that we gave an historic answer. We gave an
answer that transformed the situation. We took a step in the
right direction. Of course, in doing so we provoked a response.
Our opponents responded with a coup d’état. First
the attempted coup of Roger Lafontant, in January 1991, and
when that failed, the coup of September 30th 1991. Our opponents
were always going to have disproportionately powerful means
of hindering the popular movement, and no single decision or
action could have changed this. What mattered was that we took
a step forward, a step in the right direction, followed by other
steps. The process that began then is still going strong. In
spite of everything it is still going strong, and I’m
convinced that it will only get stronger. And that in the end
it will prevail.
PH: The coup of September 1991
took place even though the actual policies you pursued once
in office were quite moderate, quite cautious. So was a coup
inevitable? Regardless of what you did or didn’t do, 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
JBA: Well it’s a good
question. Here’s how I understand the situation. What
happened in September 1991 happened again in February 2004,
and could easily happen again soon, in the future, 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
that is imposed and controlled from above. They’ve been
able to keep things this way for a long time. Haiti has been
independent for 200 years, and we now live in a country in which
just 1% of its people control more than half of its wealth.
For the elite, it’s a matter of us against them, of finding
a way of preserving the massive inequalities that affect every
facet of Haitian society. We are subject to a sort of apartheid.
Ever since 1804, the elite has done everything in its power
to keep the masses at bay, on the other side of the walls that
protect their privilege. This is what we are up against. This
is what any genuinely democratic project is up against. The
elite will do everything in its power to ensure that it controls
a puppet president and a puppet parliament. It will do everything
necessary to protect the system of exploitation upon which its
power depends. Your question has to be addressed in terms of
this historical context, in terms of this deep and far-reaching
PH: Exactly so - but in that
case, what needs to be done to confront the power of this elite?
If in the end it is prepared to use violence to counter any
genuine threat to their hegemony, what is the best way to overcome
this violence? For all its strength, the popular movement that
carried you to the presidency wasn’t strong enough to
keep you there, in the face of the violence it provoked.
People sometimes compare you to Toussaint L’Ouverture,
who led his people to freedom and won extraordinary victories
under extraordinary constraints - but Toussaint is also often
criticized for failing to go far enough, for failing to break
with France, for failing to do enough to keep the people’s
support. It was Dessalines who led the final fight for independence
and who assumed the full cost of that fight. How do you answer
those (like Patrick Elie, for instance, or Ben Dupuy) 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 U.S. and its domestic
JBA: Well [laughs]. ‘Too
much faith in the U.S.’, that makes me smile... In my
humble opinion Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a man, had his
limitations. But he did his best, and in reality he did not
fail. The dignity he defended, the principles he defended, continue
to inspire us today. He was captured, his body was imprisoned
and killed, yes; but Toussaint is still alive, his example and
his spirit still guide us now. Today the struggle of the Haitian
people is an extension of his campaign for dignity and freedom.
These last two years, from 2004-2006, they continued to stand
up for their dignity and refused to fall to their knees, they
refused to capitulate. On 6 July 2005 Cité Soleil was
attacked and bombarded, but this attack, and the many similar
attacks, did not discourage people from insisting that their
voices be heard. They spoke out against injustice. They voted
for their president this past February, and this too was an
assertion of their dignity; they will not accept the imposition
of another president from abroad or above. This simple insistence
on dignity is itself an engine of historical change. The people
insist that they will be the subject of their history, not its
object. As Toussaint was the subject of his history, so too
the Haitian people have taken up and extended his struggle,
as the subjects of their history.
Again, this doesn’t mean that success is
inevitable or easy. It doesn’t mean we can resolve every
problem, or even that once we have dealt with a problem, 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 precisely the real meaning
of Toussaint’s famous claim, once 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. Our struggle for
freedom will encounter many obstacles but it will not be uprooted.
It is firmly rooted in the minds of the people. The people are
poor, certainly, but our minds are free. We continue to exist,
as a people, on the basis of this initial prise de conscience,
of this fundamental awareness that we are.
It’s not an accident that when it came
to choosing a leader, this people, these people who remain so
poor and so marginalized by the powers that be, should have
sought out not a politician but a priest. The politicians had
let them down. They were looking for someone with principles,
someone who would speak the truth, and in a sense this was more
important than material success, or an early victory over our
opponents. This is Toussaint’s legacy.
As for Dessalines, the struggle that he led was
armed, it was a military struggle, and necessarily so, since
he had to break the bonds of slavery once and for all. He succeeded.
But do we still need to carry on with this same struggle, in
the same way? I don’t think so. Was Dessalines wrong to
fight the way he did? No. But our struggle is different. It
is Toussaint, rather than Dessalines, who can still accompany
the popular movement today. It’s this inspiration that
was at work in the election victory of February 2006, that allowed
the people to out-fox and outmaneuver their opponents, to choose
their own leader in the face of the full might of the powers
For me this opens out onto a more general point.
Did we place too much trust in the Americans? Were we too dependent
on external forces? No. We simply tried to remain lucid, and
to avoid facile demagoguery. 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. Take a concrete example,
the events of 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. This is
what I mean by acting in the spirit of Toussaint L’Ouverture.
We never had any illusions that the Americans shared our deeper
objectives, we knew they didn’t want to travel in the
same direction. But without the Americans we couldn’t
have restored democracy.
PH: There was no other option,
no alternative to reliance on American troops?
JBA: No. The Haitian people
are not armed. Of course there are some criminals and vagabonds,
some drug dealers, some 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. We need to look
the situation in the eye: the people have no weapons, and they
will never have as many weapons as their enemies. 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 compromises,
to accept many of the things you’d always opposed - a
severe structural adjustment plan, neo-liberal economic policies,
privatization of the 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
JBA: Yes of course, but here
you have to distinguish between the struggle in principle, the
struggle to persist in a preferential option for the poor, which
for me is inspired by theology and is a matter of justice and
truth, on the one hand, and on the other hand, their political
struggle, which plays by different rules. In their version of
politics you can lie and cheat if it allows you to pursue your
strategic aims. The claim that there were weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq, for instance, was a flagrant lie. But since it was
a useful way of reaching their objective, Colin Powell and company
went down that path.
As for Haiti, back 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 privatization of state enterprises, I was
prepared to agree in principle, if necessary - but I refused
simply to sell them off, unconditionally, to private investors.
I said no to untrammeled privatization. Now that there was corruption
in the state sector was undeniable, but there were several different
ways of engaging with this corruption. Rather than untrammeled
privatization., I was prepared to agree to a democratization
of these enterprises. What does this mean? It means an insistence
on transparency. It means that some of the profits of a factory
or a firm should go to the people who work for it. It means
that some of those profits should be invested in things like
local schools, or health clinics, so that the children of the
workers can derive some benefit from their work. It means creating
conditions on the micro level that are consistent with the principles
that we want to guide development on the macro level. The Americans
said fine, no problem.
We all signed those agreements, and I am at peace
with my decision to this day. I spoke the truth. Whereas they
signed them in a different spirit. They signed them because
by doing so they could facilitate my return to Haiti and thus
engineer their foreign policy victory, but once I was back in
office, they were already planning to renegotiate the terms
of the privatization. And that’s exactly what happened.
They started to insist on untrammeled privatization., and again
I said no. They went back on our agreement, and then relied
on a disinformation campaign to make it look like it was me
who had broken my word. It’s not true. The accords we
signed are there, people can judge for themselves. (The text
of the Paris accords was published in the August 1994 issue
Monitor.) Unfortunately we didn’t have the means to
win the public relations fight. They won the communications
battle, by spreading lies and distorting the truth, but I still
feel that we won the real battle, by sticking to the truth.
PH: What about your battle with
the Haitian army itself, the army that overthrew you in 1991?
The Americans re-made this army in line with their own priorities
back in 1915, 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 demobilize
and disarm the soldiers themselves. Some of them came back to
haunt you with a vengeance, during your second administration.
JBA: Again I have no regrets
on this score. It was absolutely necessary to disband the army.
We had an army of some 7000 soldiers, and it absorbed 40% 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? So we did what needed
to be done.
In fact we did organize a social program for
the reintegration of former soldiers, since they too are members
of the national community. They too have the right to work,
and the state has the 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 have recourse to violence,
or theft, as did the Tontons Macoutes before them. We did the
best we could. The problem didn’t lie with our integration
and demobilization program, it lay with the resentment of those
who were determined to preserve the old 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 destabilize
the country. That’s exactly what they did. But again,
it wasn’t a mistake to disband the army. It’s not
as if we might have avoided the second coup, the coup of 2004,
if we had hung on to the army. On the contrary, if the army
had remained in place then René Préval would never
have finished his first term in office (1996-2001), and I certainly
wouldn’t have been able to hold out for three years, from
2001 to 2004.
By acting the way we did we clarified the real
conflict at issue here. As you know, Haiti’s history is
punctuated by a long series of coups. But 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, as happened so many times
before, and as happened again in 1991. No, this time these all-powerful
interests had to carry out the job themselves, with their own
troops and in their own name.
PH: Once Chamblain and his little
band of rebels got bogged down on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince
and couldn’t advance any further, U.S. Marines had to
go in and scoop you out of the country.
JBA: Exactly. The real truth
of the situation, the real contradiction organizing the situation,
finally came out in the open, in full public view.
PH: Going back to the mid 1990s
for a moment, did the creation of the Fanmi Lavalas party in
1996 serve a similar function, by helping to clarify the actual
lines of internal conflict that had already fractured the loose
coalition of forces that first brought you to power in 1990?
Why were there such deep divisions between you and some of your
erstwhile allies, people like Chavannes Jean-Baptiste and Gérard
Pierre-Charles? Almost the whole of Préval’s first
administration, from 1996 to 2000, was hampered by infighting
and opposition from Pierre-Charles and the OPL. Did you set
out, then, to create a unified, disciplined party, one that
could offer and then deliver a coherent political program?
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 organization, of training party members, and so on.
Already back in 1991, I was happy to leave this to career politicians,
to people like Gérard Pierre-Charles, and along with
other people he began working along these lines as soon as democracy
was restored. He helped found the Organization 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 then,
rather than seek to articulate an ongoing relation between the
party and the people, rather than continue to listen to the
people, after the elections the OPL started to pay less attention
to them. It started to fall into the traditional patterns and
practices of Haitian politics. It started to become more closed
in on itself, more distant from the people, more willing to
make empty promises, and so on. As for me I was out of office,
and I 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. They wanted
to remain in communion with the people. At this point (in 1996)
the group of people 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 there were more
and more such people, who 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. And even when it came to be constituted
as a political organization, it never conceived of itself as
a conventional political party. If you look through the organization’s
constitution, you’ll see that the word ‘party’
never comes up. It describes itself as an organization, not
a party. Why? Because in Haiti we have no 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 organization, of popular organizations
- the ti legliz, for instance.
So no, it wasn’t me who ‘founded’
Fanmi Lavalas as a political party. I just brought my contribution
to the formation of this organization, which offered a platform
for those who were frustrated with the party that was the OPL
(which was soon to re-brand itself as the neo-liberal Organization
du Peuple en Lutte), those who were still active in the movement
but who felt excluded within it. Now in order to be effective
Fanmi Lavalas needed to draw on the experience of people who
knew something of politics, people who could act as political
leaders without abandoning a commitment to truth. This is the
hard problem, of course. Fanmi Lavalas doesn’t have the
strict discipline and coordination of a political party. Some
of its members haven’t yet acquired the training and the
experience necessary to preserve both a commitment to truth
and an effective participation in politics. For us, politics
is deeply connected to ethics, this is the crux of the matter.
Fanmi Lavalas is not an exclusively political organization.
That’s why no politician has been able simply to appropriate
and use Fanmi Lavalas as a springboard to power. That will never
be easy: the members of Fanmi Lavalas insist on the fidelity
of their leaders.
PH: That’s a lesson that
Marc Bazin, Louis-Gérald Gilles and a few others had
to learn during the 2006 election campaign, to their cost.
PH: To what extent, however,
did Fanmi Lavalas then become a victim of its own success? Rather
like the ANC here in South Africa, it was obvious from the beginning
that Fanmi Lavalas would be more or less unbeatable at the polls.
But this can be a mixed blessing. How did you propose to deal
with the many opportunists who immediately sought to worm their
way into your organization, people like Dany Toussaint and his
JBA: I left office early in
1996. By 1997, Fanmi Lavalas had emerged as a functional organization,
with a clear constitution. This was already a big step forward
from 1990. In 1990, the political movement was largely spontaneous;
in 1997 things were more coordinated. Along with the constitution,
at the first Fanmi Lavalas congress we voted and approved the
program laid out in our Livre Blanc: Investir dans l’humain,
which I know you’re familiar with. This program didn’t
emerge out of nothing. For around two years we held meetings
with engineers, with agronomists, with doctors, teachers, and
so on. We listened and discussed the merits of different proposals.
It was a collective process. The Livre Blanc is not a program
based on my personal priorities or ideology. It’s the
result of a long process of consultation with professionals
in all these domains, and it was compiled as a truly collaborative
document. And as even the World Bank came to recognize, it was
a genuine program, a coherent plan for the transformation of
the country. It wasn’t a bundle of empty promises.
Now in the midst of these discussions, in the
midst of the emergent organization, it’s true that you
will find opportunists, you will find future criminals and future
drug-dealers. But it wasn’t easy to identify them. It
wasn’t easy to find them in time, and to expel them in
time, before it was too late. Most of these people, before gaining
a seat in parliament, behaved perfectly well. But you know,
for some people power can be like alcohol: after a glass, two
glasses, a whole bottle... you’re not dealing with the
same person. It makes some people dizzy. These things are difficult
to anticipate. Nevertheless, I think that if it hadn’t
been for the intervention of foreign powers, we would have been
able to make real progress. We had established viable methods
for collaborative discussion, and for preserving direct links
with the people. I think we would have made real progress, taking
small but steady steps.
Even in spite of the aid embargo we managed to
accomplish certain things. We were able to invest in education,
for instance. As you know, in 1990 there were only 34 secondary
schools in Haiti; by 2001 there were 138. The little that we
had to invest, we invested it in line with the program laid
out in Investir dans l’humain. We built a new university
at Tabarre, a new medical school. Although it had to run on
a shoestring, the literacy program we launched in 2001 was also
working well; Cuban experts who helped us manage the program
were confident that by December 2004 we’d have reduced
the rate of adult illiteracy to just 15%, a small fraction of
what it was a decade earlier. Previous governments never seriously
tried to invest in education, and it’s clear that our
program was always going to be a threat to the status quo. The
elite want nothing to do with popular education, for obvious
reasons. Again it comes down to this: we can either set out
from a position of genuine freedom and independence, and work
to create a country that respects the dignity of all its people,
or else we will have to accept a position of servile dependence,
a country in which the dignity of ordinary people counts for
nothing. This is what’s at stake here.
PH: Armed then with its program,
Fanmi Lavalas duly won an overwhelming victory in the legislative
elections of May 2000, winning around 75% of the vote. No one
disputed the clarity and legitimacy of the victory. But your
enemies in the U.S. 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 technicality 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. 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. But this was a year after the
event; 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: I hope you won’t
mind if I take you up on your choice of verbs: you say that
we gave the Americans a pretext. In reality the Americans created
their pretext, and if it hadn’t been this it would have
been something else. Their goal all along was to ensure that
come January 2004, there would be no meaningful celebration
of the bicentenary of independence. It took the U.S. 58 years
to recognize Haiti’s independence, since of course the
U.S. was a slave-owning country at the time, and in fact U.S.
policy has never really changed. 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 by people in Haiti with the support of the U.S.
administration, and in February 2004 it happened again, thanks
to many of these same people.
No, the U.S. created their little pretext. They
were having trouble persuading the other leaders in CARICOM
to turn against us (many of whom in fact they were never able
to persuade), and they needed a pretext that was clear and easy
to understand. ‘Tainted elections’, it was the perfect
card to play. But I remember very well what happened when they
came to observe the elections. They came, and they said ‘very
good, no problem’. Everything seemed to go smoothly, the
process was deemed 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 CEP (Provisional Electoral Council),
which alone has the authority to decide on these matters. The
CEP is a sovereign, independent body. The CEP declared the results
of the elections; I had nothing to do with it. Then when 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 back in the U.S.
itself? What would happen if a foreign government insisted that
the president dismiss an elected senator? It’s absurd.
The whole situation is simply racist, in fact; they impose conditions
on us that they would never contemplate imposing on a ‘properly’
independent country, on a white country. We have to call things
by their name: is the issue really a matter of democratic governance,
of the validity of a particular electoral result? Or is actually
about something else?
In the end, what the Americans wanted to do was
to use the legislature, the senate, against the executive. They
hoped that I would be stupid enough to insist on the dismissal
of these elected senators. I refused to do it. In 2001, as a
gesture of goodwill, these senators eventually 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
never had the slightest interest in new elections. Once this
tactic failed, however, they recruited or bought off a few hotheads,
including Dany Toussaint and company, and used them, a little
later, against the presidency.
Once again, the overall objective was to undermine
the celebration of our bicentenary, the celebration of our independence
and of all its implications. When the time came they sent emissaries
to Africa, especially to francophone Africa, telling their leaders
not to attend the celebrations. Chirac applied enormous pressure
on his African colleagues; the Americans did the same. Thabo
Mbeki was almost alone in his willingness to resist this pressure,
and through him the African Union was represented. I’m
very glad of it. The same pressure was applied in the Caribbean:
the prime minister of the Bahamas, Perry Christie, decided to
come, but that’s it, he was the only one. It was very
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 for Haiti that was
suspended when we won the elections in 2000 was simply diverted
to a propaganda and destabilization campaign waged against our
government and against Fanmi Lavalas. The disinformation campaign
was truly massive. Huge sums of money were spent to get the
message out, through the radio, through newspapers, through
various little political parties that were supposed to serve
as vehicles for the opposition... It was extraordinary. When
I look back at this very discouraging period in our history
I compare it with what has recently happened in some other places.
They went to the same sort of trouble when they tried to say
there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I can still
see Colin Powell sitting there in front of the United Nations,
with his little bag of tricks, demonstrating for all the world
to see that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Look at this irrefutable proof! It was pathetic. In any case
the logic was the same: they rig up a useful lie, and then they
sell it. It’s the logic of people who take themselves
to be all-powerful. If they decide 1 + 1 = 4, then 4 it will
have to be.
PH: From My Lai to the Iran-Contras
to Iraq to Haiti, Colin Powell has made an entire career along
these lines... But going back to May 2000: soon after the results
were declared, 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 patron, 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 almost as white as the whites themselves, you get to feel
whiter than white, if you’re willing to get down on your
knees in front of the whites. If you’re willing to get
down on your knees, rather than stay on your feet, then you
can feel almost as white as they look. 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]. How
could white men lie? They are the civilized ones. If I lie for
the whites I’m not really lying, I’m just repeating
what they say. So I don’t know, but 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. Who has access to that sort
In this case and others like it, what’s
really going on is clear enough. It’s the people with
power who pull the strings, and they use this or that petit
nègre de service, this or that black messenger to convey
the lies that they call truth. The people recruited into the
Group of 184 did much they same thing: they were paid off to
say what their employers wanted them to say. They helped destroy
the country, in order to please their patrons.
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
‘Democratic Convergence’, and later by the ‘Group
of 184’, by people like Evans Paul, Gérard Pierre-Charles
and others. They refused all compromise, they insisted on all
sorts of unreasonable conditions before they would even consider
participation in another round of elections. The Americans themselves
seemed exasperated with them, but made no real effort to rein
JBA: They made no effort to
rein them in because this was all part of the plan. It’s
a little bit like what’s happening now [in July 2006],
with Yvon Neptune: the Americans have been shedding crocodile
tears over poor imprisoned Neptune, as if they haven’t
been complicit in and responsible for this imprisonment! As
if they don’t have the power to change the situation overnight!
They have the power to undermine and overthrow a democratically
elected government, but they don’t have the power to set
free a couple of prisoners that they themselves put in prison
[laughs]. Naturally they have to respect the law, the proper
procedures, the integrity of Haitian institutions! This is all
bluff, it’s absurd.
Why were the Group of 184 and our opponents in
‘civil society’ so hostile? Again it’s partly
a matter of social pathology. When a group of citizens is prepared
to act in so irrational and servile a fashion, when they are
so willing to relay the message concocted by their foreign masters,
without even realizing that in doing so they inflict harm upon
themselves - well if you ask me, this is a symptom of a real
pathology. It has something to do with a visceral hatred, which
became a real obsession: a hatred for the people. 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 we are all equal, that everyone
is equal. So when they behave in this way, part of the reason
is to reassure themselves that they are different, that they
are not like the people, not like them. It’s essential
that they see themselves as better than others. I think this
is one part of the problem, and it’s not simply a political
problem. There’s something masochistic about this behavior,
and there are plenty of foreign sadists who are more than willing
I’m convinced it’s bound up with
the legacy of slavery, with an inherited contempt for the people,
for the common people, for the niggers [petits nègres]...
It’s the psychology of apartheid: it’s better to
get down on your knees with whites than it is to stand shoulder
to shoulder with blacks. Don’t underestimate the depth
of this contempt. Don’t forget that back in 1991, one
of the first things we did was abolish the classification, on
birth certificates, of people who were born outside of 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 outside,
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. It won’t change overnight.
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? Was it necessary?
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 Jean-Claude Duvalier. I only
turned to Bazin because my opponents in Democratic Convergence,
in the OPL and so on, absolutely refused any participation in
PH: You were under pressure
to build a government of ‘consensus’, of national
unity, and you approached people in the Convergence first?
JBA: Right, and I got nowhere.
Their objective was to scrap the entire process, and they said
no straightaway. Look, of course we had a massive majority in
parliament, and I wasn’t prepared to dissolve a properly
elected parliament. What for? But I was aware of the danger
of simply excluding the opposition. 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 the 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. They weren’t
pro-Lavalas, but we had already published a well-defined political
program, and if they were willing to cooperate on this or that
aspect of the program, then we were willing to work with them
PH: It’s ironic: you were
often accused of being a sort of ‘monarchical’ if
not tyrannical president, 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 of dissent? 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 misinformation. You allowed all sorts of demonstrations to
go on day after day, calling for you to be overthrown by fair
means or foul, and many of these demonstrators were directly
funded and organized by your enemies in the U.S. Eventually
the situation got out of hand, and the people who sought to
profit from the chaos certainly weren’t motivated by respect
for the rights of free speech!
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.
Now again, I knew our position was strong in parliament, and
that the great majority of the people were behind us. A small
minority opposed us, a small but powerful minority. 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. That’s normal. As
for accusations that I was becoming dictatorial, authoritarian,
and so on, I paid no attention. I knew they were lying, and
I knew they knew they were lying. Of course it was a predictable
strategy, and it helped create a familiar image they could sell
to the outside world. At home, however, everyone knew it was
ridiculous. And in the end, like I said before, it was the foreign
masters themselves who had to come to Haiti to finish the job.
My government certainly wasn’t overthrown by the people
who were demonstrating in the streets.
PH: Perhaps 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. The claim is that, as
the pressure on your government grew, you started to rely on
armed gangs from the slums, so-called ‘chimères’,
and that you used them to intimidate and in some cases to murder
JBA: Here again the people who
make these sort of claims are lying, and I think they know they
are lying. As soon as you start to look rationally at what was
really 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 even able to buy bullet-proof vests or tear-gas
canisters. The police were severely under-equipped, 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.
The people also understood this. It was common knowledge that
while the police were running out of ammunition and supplies
in Haiti, heavy weapons were being smuggled to our opponents
in and 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 some 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. The president of a country like
Haiti cannot be held responsible for the actions of its every
citizen. But there was never any deliberate encouragement of
violence, there was no deliberate recourse to violence. Those
who make and repeat these claims are lying, and they know it.
Now what about these ‘chimères’,
the people they call chimères? This is clearly another
expression of our apartheid mentality, the very 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 they 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 everyone knows that powerful
economic interests were quite happy to fund certain criminal
gangs, that they 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
they promised them visas - recently some of them who are now
living in France admitted what they were told to say, in order
to get their visa. So you have people who were financing misinformation
on the one hand and destabilization on the other, and who encouraged
little groups of hoodlums to sow panic on the streets, to create
the impression of a government that is 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 Haitian 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, who is a convicted criminal, who escaped
justice in Haiti to be welcomed by the US, and who then armed
and financed these future ‘freedom fighters’ who
were waiting over the border in the Dominican Republic. That’s
what really happened. We didn’t arm the ‘chimères’,
it was they who armed Chamblain and Philippe! The hypocrisy
is extraordinary. And then when it comes to 2004-2006, suddenly
all this indignant talk of violence falls quiet. 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. They
don’t count as equals, they aren’t really people
in their own right.
PH: What about people in your
entourage like Dany Toussaint, your former chief of security,
who was accused of all kinds of violence and intimidation?
JBA: He was working for them!
It’s clear. 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 even 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, to infiltrate our organization This
was incredibly difficult to control. We were truly surrounded.
I was surrounded by people who one way or another were in the
pay of foreign powers, who were working actively to overthrow
the government. A friend of mine said at the time, looking at
the situation, ‘I now understand why you believe in God,
as otherwise I can’t understand how you can still be alive,
in the midst of all this.’
PH: I suppose even your enemies
knew there was nothing to gain by turning you into a martyr.
JBA: Yes, they knew that a mixture
of disinformation and character assassination would be more
effective, more devastating. I’m certainly used to it
PH: How can I find out more
about Dany Toussaint’s role in all this? He 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
clamoring for his arrest while you were still in power were
then suddenly quite happy to leave him in peace, once he had
openly 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: This won’t be easy
to document, I accept that. But if you dig around for evidence
I think you’ll find it. Over time, things that were once
hidden and obscure tend to come to light. In Haiti there are
lots of rumors and counter-rumors, but eventually the truth
tends to come out. 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 are starting to come
PH: You mean things like the
eventual public admissions, made over the past year or so by
rebel leaders Rémissainthe Ravix and Guy Philippe, about
the extent of their long-standing collaboration with the Convergence
Démocratique, with the Americans?
PH: Along the same lines, what
do you say to militant leftwing groups like Batay Ouvriye, who
insist that your government failed to do enough to help the
poor, that you did nothing for the workers? Although they would
appear to have little in common with the Convergence, they made
and continue to make many of the same sorts of accusations against
JBA: I think, although I’m
not sure, that there are several things that help explain this.
First of all, you need to look at where their funding comes
from. The discourse makes more sense, once we know who is paying
the bills. The Americans don’t just fund political groups
PH: Particularly not quasi-Trotskyite
JBA: Of course
not. And again, I think that part of the reason comes back to
what I was saying before, that somewhere, somehow, there’s
a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction,
in saying things that powerful white people want you to say.
Even here, I think it goes something like this: ‘yes we
are workers, we are farmers, we are struggling on behalf of
the workers, but somewhere, there’s a little part of us
that would like to escape our mental class, the state of mind
of our class, and jump up into another mental class.’
My hunch is that it’s something like that. In Haiti, contempt
for the people runs very deep. In my experience, resistance
to our affirmation of equality, our being together with the
people, ran very deep indeed. Even when it comes to trivial
PH: Like inviting kids from
poor neighborhoods to swim in your pool?
JBA: Right. You wouldn’t
believe the reactions this provoked. It was too scandalous:
swimming pools are supposed to be the preserve of the rich.
When I saw the photographs this past February, of the people
swimming in the pool of the Montana Hotel, I smiled [laughs].
I thought that was great. I thought ah, now I can die in peace.
It was great to see. Because at the time, when kids came to
swim in our pool at Tabarre, lots of people said look, he’s
opening the doors of his house to riff-raff, he’s putting
ideas in their heads. First they will ask to swim in his pool;
soon they will demand a place in our house. And I said no, it’s
just the opposite. I had no interest in the pool itself, I hardly
ever used it. What interested me was the message this sent out.
Kids from the poorer neighborhoods would normally never get
to see a pool, let alone swim in one. Many are full of envy
for the rich. But once they’ve swum in a pool, once they
realize that it’s just a pool, they conclude that it doesn’t
much matter. The envy is deflated.
PH: That day in February, a
huge crowd of thousands of people came up from the slums to
make their point to the CEP (which was stationed in the Montana
Hotel), they made their demands, and then hundreds of them swam
in Montana’s pool and left, without touching a thing.
No damage, no theft, just making a point.
JBA: Exactly. It was a joy to
see those pictures.
PH: Turning now to what happened
in February 2004. I know you’ve often been asked about
this, but there are wildly different versions of what happened
in the run-up to your expulsion from the country. The Americans
insist that late in the day you came calling for help, that
you suddenly panicked and that they were caught off guard by
the speed of your government’s collapse. On the face of
it this doesn’t look very plausible. Guy Philippe’s
well-armed rebels were able to outgun some isolated police stations,
and appeared to control much of the northern part of the country.
But how much support did the 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
JBA: Don’t forget that
there had been several attempts at a coup in the previous few
years, in July 2001, with an attack on the police academy, the
former military academy, and again a few months later, in December
2001, with an incursion into the national palace itself. They
didn’t succeed, and on both occasions these same 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 they knew what
they were up against, they knew that it wouldn’t be easy.
They might be able to find a way into the city, but they knew
that it would be hard to remain there. It was a little like
the way things later turned out in Iraq: the Americans had the
weapons to battle their way in easily enough, but staying there
has proved to be more of a challenge. The rebels knew they couldn’t
take Port-au-Prince, and that’s why they hesitated for
a while, on the outskirts, some 40 km away. So from our perspective
we had nothing to fear. The balance of forces was in our favor,
that was clear. There are occasions when large groups of people
are more powerful than heavy machine guns and automatic weapons,
it all depends on the context. And the context of Port-au-Prince,
in a city with so many national and international interests,
with its embassies, its public prominence and visibility, and
so on, was different from the context of more isolated places
like Saint-Marc or Gonaïves. The people were ready, and
I wasn’t worried.
No, the rebels knew they couldn’t take
the city, and that’s why their masters decided on a diversion
instead, on attacks in the provinces, in order to create the
illusion that much of the country was under their control, that
there was a major insurrection under way. But it wasn’t
the case. 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
Meanwhile, as you know on February
29 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 at all.
PH: So at that point the Americans
had no option but to go in and get you themselves, 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. That’s what they did.
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 were prepared to endorse 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 U.S. story was a pure fabrication, that it was ‘just
bogus.’ Your personal security advisor and pilot, Frantz
Gabriel, also confirms that you were kidnapped that night by
U.S. military personnel. Who are we supposed to believe?
JBA: Well. For me it’s
very simple. You’re dealing with a country that was willing
and able, in front of the United Nations 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. They have their people, their resources, their
way of doings. They just carried out their plan, that’s
all. It was all part of the plan.
PH: They said they couldn’t
send peacekeepers to help stabilize the situation, but as soon
as you were gone, the troops arrived straight away.
JBA: The plan was perfectly
PH: I have just a couple of
last questions. 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 organization,
but you kept very quiet.
JBA: In a dictatorship, the
orders go from top to bottom. In a democratic organization,
the process is more dialectical. The small groups or cells that
we call the ti fanmis are part of Fanmi Lavalas, they discuss
things, debate things, express themselves, until a collective
decision emerges from out of the discussion. This is how the
organization works. Of course our opponents will always cry
‘dictatorship, dictatorship, it’s just Aristide
giving orders.’ But people who are familiar with the organization
know that’s not the way it is. We have no experience of
situations in which someone comes and gives an order, without
discussion. I remember that when we had to choose the future
electoral candidates for Fanmi Lavalas, back 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, this was our way of doing
things. So now, 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 organization 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. The decisions we made emerged
through a genuinely collective process. The people are intelligent,
and their intelligence is often surprising.
I knew that the Fanmi Lavalas senators who decided
to back Bazin would soon be confronted by the truth, but I didn’t
know how this would happen, since the true decision emerged
from the people, from below, not from above. And no-one could
have guessed it, a couple of months in advance. Never doubt
the people’s intelligence, their power of discernment.
Did I give an order to support Bazin or to oppose Bazin? No,
I gave no order either way. I trusted the membership to get
at the truth.
Of course the organization is guided by certain
principles, and I drew attention to some of them at the time.
In South Africa, back in 1994, could there have been fair elections
if Mandela was still in prison, if Mbeki was still in exile,
if other leaders of the ANC were in hiding? The situation in
Haiti this past year was much the same: there could hardly be
fair elections before the prisoners were freed, before the exiles
were allowed to return, and so on. I was prepared to speak out
about this, as a matter of general principle. But to go further
than this, to declare for this or that candidate, this or that
course of action, no, it wasn’t for me to say.
PH: How do you now envisage
the future? What has to happen next? 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 condition 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, at the level of people’s
minds. Members of the impoverished sections of Haitian society
now have an experience of democracy, of a collective consciousness,
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. They will not accept lies
in the place of truth, as if they were too stupid to understand
the difference between the two. 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. Either you accept this principle
or you don’t. Those who don’t accept it, 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 this mentality is still very
widespread among our political class. It’s also a projection:
they project upon the people a sense of their own inadequacy,
their own inequality in the eyes of the master.
So yes, for me there is a way out, a way forward,
and it has to pass by way of the people. Even if we don’t
yet have viable democratic structures and institutions, there
is already a democratic consciousness, a collective democratic
consciousness, and this is irreversible. 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 mobilization
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 1992 to 1994 for instance, there were
people in the U.S. 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 U.S. administration
that is diametrically opposed to its predecessor, and everything
slowed down dramatically, or went into reverse. The question
is how long it will take. The real problem isn’t simply
a Haitian one, it isn’t located within Haiti. It’s
a problem for Haiti that is located outside Haiti! The people
who control it can speed things up, slow them down, block them
altogether, as they like. But the process itself, the democratic
process in Haiti itself, it will move forward one way or another,
it’s irreversible. That’s how I understand it.
As for what will happen now, or next, that’s
unclear. The unknown variables I mentioned before remain in
force, and much depends on how those who control the means of
repression both at home and abroad will react. 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
JBA: Yes indeed: Thabo Mbeki’s
last public declaration on this point dates from February, when
he said he saw no particular reason why I shouldn’t be
able to return home, and this still stands. Of course it’s
still 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. I am ready to
go back tomorrow.
PH: In the eyes of your opponents,
you still represent a major political threat.
JBA: Criminals like Chamblain
and Philippe are free to patrol the streets, even now, but I
should remain in exile because some members of the elite think
I represent a major threat? Who is the real threat? Who is guilty,
and who is innocent? Again, either we live in a democracy or
we don’t, either we respect the law or we don’t.
There is no legal justification for blocking my return. It’s
slightly comical: I was elected president but am accused of
dictatorship by nameless people who are accountable to no-one
yet have the power to expel me from the country and then to
delay or block my return [laughs]. In any case, once I’m
finally able to return, then the fears of these people will
evaporate like mist, since they have no substance. They have
no more substance than did the threat of legal action against
me, which was finally abandoned this past week, once even the
American lawyers who were hired to prosecute the case realized
that the whole thing was empty, that there was nothing in it.
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. For me it’s
very clear. 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, it’s
a vocation that I have never abandoned, I am still committed
to it. For me, one of the great achievements of our second administration
was the construction of the University of Tabarre, which was
built entirely under embargo but which in terms of its infrastructure
became the largest university in Haiti (and which, since 2004,
has been occupied by foreign troops). I would like to go back
to teaching, I plan to remain active in education.
As for politics, I never had any interest in
becoming a political leader ‘for life.’ That was
Duvalier: president for life. In fact that is also the way most
political parties in Haiti still function: they serve the interests
of a particular individual, of a small group of friends. Often
it’s just a dozen people, huddled around their life-long
chief. This is not at all how a political organization should
work. A political organization consists of its members, it isn’t
the instrument of one man. Of course I would like to help strengthen
the organization. If I can help with the training of its members,
if I can accompany the organization as it moves forward, then
I will be glad to be of service. Fanmi Lavalas needs to become
more professional, it needs to have more internal discipline;
the democratic process needs properly functional political parties,
and it needs parties, in the plural. So I will not dominate
or lead the organization, that is not my role, but I will contribute
what I can.
PH: And now, at this point,
after all these long years of struggle, and after the setbacks
of these last years, what is your general assessment of the
situation? Are you discouraged? Hopeful?
JBA: No I’m not discouraged.
You teach philosophy, so let me couch my answer in philosophical
terms. You know that we can think the category of being either
in terms of potential or act, en puissance ou en acte. This
is a familiar Aristotelian distinction: being can be potential
or actual. So long as it remains potential, you cannot touch
it or confirm it. But it is, nonetheless, it exists. The collective
consciousness of the Haitian people, their mobilization for
democracy, these things may not have been fully actualized but
they exist, they are real. This is what sustains me. I am sustained
by this collective potential, the power of this collective potential
being [cet être collectif en puissance]. This power has
not yet been actualized, it has not yet been enacted in the
building of enough schools, of more hospitals, more opportunities,
but these things will come. The power is real and it is what
animates the way forward.
Editorial note: This interview was conducted
in French, in Pretoria, on 20 July 2006; it was translated and
edited by Peter Hallward, professor of philosophy at Middlesex
University (American spellings by BlackCommentator). An abbreviated
version of the interview appears in the London Review of Books
February 2007), This is the text of the complete interview
which will also appear as an appendix to Hallward’s forthcoming
book Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics
of Containment, due out from Verso in the summer of 2007.