Haiti: Laying to rest the ghost of Duvalier?

Issue 

By Guillermo Fernandez

A humble 37-year-old former parish priest is Haiti's president. Survivor of five assassination attempts, repudiated by the Catholic church hierarchy, expelled from the Salesian order, Jean Bertrand Aristide amply defeated Marc Bazin, the Washington favourite whose electoral campaign was financed with over US$1 million.

Aristide is president of the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world, with an annual per capita income of less than $250, a high unemployment rate, over 70% illiteracy and almost non-existent social services. Changing this situation is the priest-president's aim, and the challenge has just begun.

Even before taking office, Aristide had to face the ultraright's first attempt to overthrow him. The failed coup attempt was led by Roger Lanfontan, former interior and defence minister under "Baby Doc", who is said to be one the principal leaders of the Tonton Macoutes — the Haitian version of the death squads operating in many Latin American countries.

Haiti's history has been marked by dictators and institutionalised violence. The US invaded the island in 1915 and, above all, supported the Duvalier dictatorship, which lasted from the 1960s until 1985.

"Baby Doc"s overthrow gave a great push to hopes of democratising the country and moving it in the direction of progress. However, generals Henri Namphy and Prosper Avril put the brakes on the democratisation process, promoting "Duvalierism without Duvalier", a move backed not very covertly by the US embassy.

Aristide phenomenon

The person who sounded the alarm revealing the United States' manoeuvring was a priest sympathetic to liberation theology. From his pulpit Jean Bertrand Aristide lambasted the new facade Duvalierism had adopted, and his name began to be heard throughout Haiti.

Three months before the elections, Aristide was nominated as candidate by the Movement for Change and Democracy, a front consisting of the National Organisation Movement and the Haitian People's Party, among other organisations. At that time very few believed in the honesty of the electoral process.

The experience of 1987, when voting ended with the army massacring the electorate, had created apathy toward the electoral process. Before Aristide's candidacy was made public, less than 20% of those qualified to vote had registered.

Aristide's first achievement was the registration of 90% of potential voters. His government program was simple: agrarian reform, popular participation in the country's administration, priority for basic grains cultivation to feed the people and the country's modernisation.

A common rumour had it that the elections were fixed and the winner would be the pro-US candidate, Marc Bazin, a former IMF official and candidate for the right-wing Alliance for Democracy and

Aristide's program succeeded in bringing together the most diverse sectors of Haitian society, from illiterate peasants and farm workers to students, intellectuals and some sectors of the bourgeoisie. The result was a sweeping victory (67 per cent of the votes cast as opposed to 16 per cent for Bazin) which destroyed the Haitian oligarchy's scheme and the United States' plans.

Repeating history?

Many now see in Jean Bertrand Aristide — bearing in mind the differences — a sort of Caribbean Salvador Allende, caught in a dead-end street between the bourgeoisie which supported him and the Duvalierist army.

A warrant for Roger Lanfontant's arrest had been pending due to his participation as a minister in the Duvalier dictatorship and his position as a Tonton Macoute before his attempted coup. Neither the army nor the police concerned themselves with arresting him as he walked through the streets of Port-au-Prince. A more disturbing fact was that only days before his coup attempt, Lanfontan had said he "would never allow that man [Aristide] to assume the government".

His threat materialised on January 7, but was quickly smothered by the army. A few days after the action, the army issued a communique in which it condemned that "act of terrorism" and stated that it "will remain loyal to its constitutional mission". What is not known is how sincere that statement is.

The metamorphosis of the army, which until recently repressed the people, becomes more suspicious since Washington praised it for "smashing the attempted coup", stating its "hope that the president can take power exactly as planned". Washington also expressed its hope that the army will protect the "democratic order" — an order Aristide is planning to change.

Another situation which Aristide will not find easy to handle is his alliance with "progressive" sectors of the bourgeoisie. In its strategy to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, the FSLN made alliance with wealthy sectors, who, when the revolutionary process became more profound, became the most intransigent members of the opposition to the Sandinista government, fully integrating themselves into the US counter-revolutionary plan.

Aristide has said that his alliance with bourgeois sectors is "tactical" and he himself has compared it to what the FSLN did. The difference is that the Sandinistas controlled the army and could thus impose the conditions for the process of socioeconomic change which took place over a decade.

Despite this situation, Haitians blindly trust the new president and believe him to be the embodiment of their hopes. Aristide does not accept praise and has stated that "there is no saviour, no messiah, but a people which is the subject of its own history, the leading actor in its democratic future".— Abridged from Barricada Internacional.