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  • Haiti's Shattered Hopes
  • Pamela Constable (bio)

After a brief, deeply flawed but unprecedented experiment in popular democracy, Haiti has abruptly returned to the politics of greed and terror that have dominated its history for most of the 200 years since slave revolts overthrew French colonial rule and led to the creation of the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.

On 30 September 1991, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first freely elected chief executive in Haiti's history, was overthrown by the army after less than eight months in power. Hundreds of protesters were gunned down in the streets, and Aristide was forced into exile. Within days, the national legislature declared his office vacant and named a new president and prime minister, thus restoring real power to the alliance of army officers and wealthy mulatto families that had long controlled the country.

The region's governments, in an unprecedented advance for hemispheric democracy and unity, rallied behind the cause of Aristide's return. The Organization of American States (OAS), no longer paralyzed by the principle of nonintervention, took swift action to secure the diplomatic isolation and economic strangulation of the new de facto regime, while working actively to promote negotiations between Aristide and his opponents.

The Bush administration, although ambivalent about Aristide's [End Page 41] revolutionary views and heavy-handed governing methods, took a strong lead in the campaign to restore Haitian democracy. International pressure finally forced regime representatives to the bargaining table with Aristide in late November, but powerful segments of the army and civilian elite remain adamantly opposed to Aristide's return. Even if the deposed president is eventually allowed back, Haiti seems headed for another long bout of conflict and instability before anything resembling democracy can emerge again.

A History of Oppression

The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been ruled for generations by a small, privileged caste of wealthy families and their military henchmen, who bled the state dry and stashed their spoils overseas while almost completely neglecting the poor. With no free public schools, illiteracy remains above 65 percent in most areas today. With one doctor per 7,000 inhabitants, infant deaths and preventable diseases are rampant. With a minimum wage of under $3 per day, the annual per capita income remains below $300 a year—a level ranking with some of the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Between 1957 and 1986, the oppressive Duvalier dictatorship held power: first the brilliant but ruthless Dr. Frangois ("Papa Doc") Duvalier, and then his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"), a bon vivant and indifferent ruler who fled into exile on 7 February 1986 rather than face mounting unrest. His departure was followed by five years of chaos, with one election aborted by polling-place massacres and a half-dozen successive military or de facto regimes holding sway.

In 1990, the civilian and military elite, facing considerable foreign pressure and anxious to end the country's isolation in a rapidly democratizing world, finally decided to tolerate fair elections. It never occurred to them that a 38-year-old priest who ran a Port-au-Prince orphanage could defeat an array of establishment candidates led by a smooth former World Bank official named Marc Bazin.

But Father Aristide's last-minute candidacy, based in grassroots church and neighborhood organizations, galvanized the country. On December 16, more than three million peasants and workers marked a careful X across his party symbol, a red fighting rooster, while international observers manned many polling booths to witness the results and discourage violence or fraud. Bazin, Aristide's closest competitor, polled less than 13 percent. The vote counting was chaotic, but the results were conclusive and overwhelming. The next day exultant voters flooded the streets, dancing triumphantly as soldiers watched nervously from the sidelines.

Abroad, Aristide's election was hailed as a major step forward for a country that had never known democracy. Although there was widespread [End Page 42] concern about his revolutionary tendencies, his popularity and legitimacy were undeniable, and foreign democracies had no choice but to welcome him to their ranks.

A diminutive, scholarly man with a serene, self-effacing demeanor and a mesmerizing oratorical style, Aristide...