aristide and the endless revolution

by Zach Kincaid
Namphy or Aristide - who’s better? For most of us the comparison is too foreign or convoluted to rightly answer. Perhaps if we ask, “Pericles or Pisistratus? How about that? Who’s better here?”

“It’s all Greek to me,” say most, and they never squirm out of their clichés. But these questions matter. Although time gapes a divide between them, both of these pairs represent transitions to democracy. Unlike the Romans after them who cycled through revolutions, the Greeks were dealt harder blows with tyranny as a commonplace thread. Bent toward gaining control of all Athens, Pisistratus masterminded a coup D'etat, creating a feudal lordship over the poor. But the cycle changes. With Pericles, Greece begins to see the ideas of democracy mature. Pericles listens to the populace, and he is touted as the first Greek official to be voted into office by the people. The year: 462 BCE.

Turn to Haiti. The year: 1986. General Namphy is in power because he took it by force when Dictator Duvalier fled the country. With Duvalier, there were too many poor, too much hunger, too little hope. The military overthrow offered more of the same. The brutality that characterized the long Duvalier family reign continued, and similar to Pisistratus who sheltered himself with the backs of his soldiers when he took the Acropolis, Namphy brought his military men and put claims on the white palace.

Instead of heeding the new Haitian constitution and calling for elections, Namphy said, “The time has not come to have elections in Haiti, the first need of the country is not politicians but education, development, and jobs.” The international community made known their disgust and pulled out aid dollars to Haiti. Generals should know better not to become tyrants came the rebuke. But how strong was this rebuke? Haitians have long experienced oppression. Napoleon began it as he reaped Haiti’s cheap labor mines. Was removing aid dollars just a soft punch in the gut and a dance to protect that which is also most valuable to the US – cheap sweat shop labor?

But the lack of basic necessities "disturbed" the poor a little too much, and a peasant revolt began to brew quickly.

Who better to lead such a revolt other than a Catholic priest? The mantel fell on a young father, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In stark John-the-Baptizer terms, Aristide hurled accusations of greed and criminality at Duvalier, Namphy, and the Plantation owners of the United States. His parish sat in Port-Au-Prince among the most destitute. Here, as Aristide preached in the chapel one day to a packed audience, Haitian military officials burned the church. 12 people died.

It’s the texture for revolution.

Aristide embraced liberation theology, an outlook in keeping with the Salesian order of priests who work to redeem the very poorest of people. Liberation theology is rooted in the claims of Jesus as one who feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and gives drink to the thirsty. The theology stands juxtaposition to the airbrushed niceties of suburban nowheres that bomb the American landscape with indifference and selfishness. But if you look hard at liberation theology, many of its tenets are shared with socialistic systems, not democratic ones. In its raw form, democracy gives no privilege to the poor. And, in the 1980s, Reagan’s administration saw this theology as nothing more than veiled Marxism. Survey the actions in Guatemala or El Salvador or Nicaragua, where the US disrupted popular elected leaders who talked of better lives and higher wages for their immense number of poor citizens. The US funded arms to rebel groups and pulled aid from these countries.

In 1990, Haiti experienced the start of such brutality by the international community. Aristide’s popularity landed him as the first democratically elected president of Haiti.

Rossier’s film touches a nerve in this highly charged season of abusive power. The new documentary, Aristide and the Endless Revolution, asks the questions surrounding the supposed American intervention to oust Aristide, who received 67 percent of the vote his first election and close to 90 percent when he ran a second time.

Why did the first Bush administration fund the opposition military that deposed Aristide in the early 90s? Why did the Aristide board a US military airplane in 2004 and resign his position in flight?

The film offers both sides. On the side that opposes Aristide’s government, Rossier presents several voices. Most notably is Roger Noriega, the US Assistant Secretary of State at the time of Aristide’s second term in office. Time and again the interviewer asks Noriega to explain the actions of the United States in reference to the facts that are known. As to the first situation that saw a takeover of the military, Noriega suggests it was Aristide’s poor handling of the country. Noriega pays no comment to the known arms support of the Haitian military whose leaders even came to the US to train at Fort Benning and who carried US commissioned weapons.

As to the more blunt actions in 2004, Noriega acknowledges that the plane was flown by the US military but Aristide was not forced to board the plane. “He made the decision on his own,” Noriega says. Aristide, who is interviewed from his exiled home in South Africa says that’s not true, that he did not know where the plane was to land or what was to transpire. The plane was to land in the Central African Republic, a country where the US has no diplomatic ties, says one source. That is, unless Aristide resigned from office. The hole that Aristide left was quickly filled by military leaders backed by the US.

“I have ordered a deployment of marines,” says George W. Bush on February 29, 2004, the day Aristide resigned. “We are working with the international community. It is essential for a hopeful future that Haiti rejects violence for this break from the past to work.”

That doesn’t come close in explaining why a band of 200 criminals could so easily depose a democratically elected leader who received close to 90 percent of the popular vote in an election that was not contested by the UN, who monitored the results.

In an eye-opening segment during the congressional hearings on the occurrences surrounding Aristide’s exit in 2004, Representative Charles Rangel asks what the definition of “coup de tat” means to Tim Carney and Orlando Marville, who work with the Haiti Democracy Project, a group that ironically opposes Aristide. The Project receives support from several companies that have economic reasons to dislike Aristide and his movement to fix the poverty of his people. Carney says that a coup de tat is a blow against the State. Marville cites it as a forcible take over of power. “What does not make this a coup de tat?” asks Rangel. “We have rebels, force, fear, flee.”

The Haiti Democracy Project clearly states that Aristide failed to deliver on his promises, willfully misgoverned, and as a result produced violence for a decade. Those who support Aristide acknowledge that Haiti is indeed “in crisis” and has long been in such a situation. Ray Laforest is a Haitian social activist that it defies logic to not support Haiti with aid knowing poverty of its citizens. “It’s a crime against humanity,” he says.

This question of aid divides those who know the Haitian plight. The opposition suggests that aid was indeed going to Haiti – 850 million dollars in aid. The side that questions such a response makes clear that these millions were not going to assist the government of Aristide - to assist a people to go from “abject misery to dignified poverty.” Rather, they were going to third parties. Representative Maxine Waters makes this point clear when she weeds out an affirmative response from Noriega who agrees that the transactions with Haiti did not directly go to Aristide to rebuild his country. (Noriega resigned from his post in July 2005.) And without such aid and the US-France trade embargo in full force, supporters say Aristide had a near impossible situation on his hands. Nevertheless, sustained peace occurred and progress seemed to gain momentum in Haiti.

Haiti might have worked. But, Aristide wanted to fix the problems of low wages, the class wars of rich and poor, and service basic needs like clean water and hospitals. What makes for a better life in Haiti might infringe on the cheap labor that its citizens provide for companies like Wal-Mart and Disney – no more than $0.50 per day per worker in sweatshop conditions.

It appears that the actions of Aristide did in fact live up to the principles of his religious beliefs to love the poor and his political convictions to fix a broken caste system propagated in Haiti since its earliest days.

The documentary ends with Aristide. “You can do your best to kill the truth,” he says, “But you won’t be able to kill it.”

Why is the world’s super power gutting the lowly that sit around them? Haiti joins the list with countries Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Jamaica. Is it the need for cheap labor and cheap goods? Is it a deliberate attempt to hold power over our neighbors?

The documentary leaves a taste of revolution in your mouth, that young take-on-the-world feeling before fists swing. It provides a context to ask what foreign policy is being enacted by the US not only in Haiti but in the other land masses that receive bombs bursting in air. The question is whether the US flag will still be there and along with it the experiment of America, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, that all people are created equal.