Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Peter Hallward in London Review of Books

"In the mid-1980s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a parish priest working in an impoverished and embattled district of Port-au-Prince. He became the spokesman of a growing popular movement against the series of military regimes that ruled Haiti after the collapse in 1986 of the Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990 he won the country’s first democratic presidential election, with 67 per cent of the vote. He was overthrown by a military coup in September 1991 and returned to power in 1994, after the US intervened to restore democratic government. In 1996 he was succeeded by his ally René Préval. Aristide won another landslide election victory in 2000, but the resistance of Haiti’s small ruling elite eventually culminated in a second coup against him, on the night of 28 February 2004. Since then, he has been living in exile in South Africa.

According to the best available estimates, around five thousand of Aristide’s supporters have died at the hands of the regime that replaced the constitutional government. Although the situation remains tense and UN troops still occupy the country, the worst of the violence came to an end in February 2006, when after an extraordinary electoral campaign, René Préval was himself re-elected in a landslide victory. Calls for Aristide’s immediate and unconditional return continue to polarise Haitian politics. Many commentators, including several prominent members of the current government, believe that if Aristide was free to stand for re-election he would win easily.

This interview was conducted in French, in Pretoria, on 20 July 2006.

Peter Hallward: Haiti is a profoundly divided country, and you have always been a profoundly divisive figure. For most of the 1990s many sympathetic observers found it easy to make sense of this division more or less along class lines: you were demonised by the rich, and idolised by the poor. But your second administration was dogged by accusations of violence and corruption. Although you remained the most popular politician among the electorate, you appeared to have lost much of the support you once enjoyed among aid-workers, activists, intellectuals and so on, both at home and abroad.

I’d like to ask about the process that first brought you to power. How do you account for the fact that, against the odds, and certainly against the wishes of the US, the military and the ruling establishment in Haiti, you were able to win the election of 1990?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide: Much of the work had already been done by people who came before me, people like Father Antoine Adrien and his co-workers, and Father Jean-Marie Vincent, who was assassinated in 1994. They had developed a progressive theological vision that resonated with the hopes and expectations of the Haitian people. Already in 1979 I was working in the context of liberation theology, and there is one phrase in particular that may help summarise my understanding of how things stood. The Conferencia de Puebla took place in Mexico in 1979, and several liberation theologians were threatened and barred from attending. The slogan I’m thinking of ran something like this: si el pueblo no va a Puebla, Puebla se quedará sin pueblo. ‘If the people cannot go to Puebla, Puebla will remain cut off from the people.’ In other words, it isn’t a matter of struggling for the people, on behalf of the people, at a distance from the people; it’s a matter of struggling with and in the midst of the people. (read entire article)

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