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Posted February 20, 2007

'One Step at a Time': An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide - Part I

By Peter Hallward, HaitiAnalysis.com

PRETORIA, South Africa - 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 champion of the rights and dignity of the poor, he soon 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 elections, with 67% of the vote. Perceived as a 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 US and France, has shaped the whole of Aristide's political trajectory. After winning another landslide election victory in 2000, his enemies launched a 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 exile in South Africa, where he remains to this day.

Although the situation in Haiti remains tense and UN troops still occupy the country, the worst of the recent violence came to an end in February 2006 when Aristide's old prime minister and ally Rene Preval (who succeeded him as president in 1996) was himself re-elected in a landslide victory. Calls for Aristide's immediate and unconditional return continue to polarise 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 win.

* * * * * 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 then things started to seem more complicated. Rightly or wrongly, by the end of the decade, many of your original supporters had become more sceptical, 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 Kreyol 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: 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 summarise 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 quedar√° 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 'saviour' 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 organised 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 organisation. 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 mobilisation 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 centre of traditional power ‚€• this was already a profoundly transformative gesture.

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 crystallisation 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 organising 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 Romelus, whom I trusted and still trust, as an elder and as a counsellor, 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'etat. 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 the backlash?

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 continuity.

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 criticised 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 allies?

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 Cite 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 marginalised 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 out-manoeuvre their opponents, to choose their own leader in the face of the full might of the powers that be.

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, privatisation 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 of 1993.

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 privatisation 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 untrammelled privatisation. Now that there was corruption in the state sector was undeniable, but there were several different ways of engaging with this corruption. Rather than untrammelled privatisation, I was prepared to agree to a democratisation 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 privatisation. And that's exactly what happened. They started to insist on untrammelled privatisation, 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. 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 demobilise 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 organise a social programme 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 demobilisation programme, 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 destabilise 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 Rene Preval 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, US Marines had to go in and scoop you out of the country.

JBA: Exactly. The real truth of the situation, the real contradiction organising 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 Gerard Pierre-Charles? Almost the whole of Preval'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 programme?

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 organisation, of training party members, and so on. Already back in 1991, I was happy to leave this to career politicians, to people like Gerard Pierre-Charles, and along with other people he began working along these lines as soon as democracy was restored. He helped found the Organisation 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 nebuleuse -- 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 organisation, it never conceived of itself as a conventional political party. If you look through the organisation's constitution, you'll see that the word 'party' never comes up. It describes itself as an organisation, 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 organisation, of popular organisations -- 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 organisation, 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 Organisation 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 organisation. 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-Gerald Gilles and a few others had to learn during the 2006 election campaign, to their cost.

JBA: Exactly.

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 organisation, people like Dany Toussaint and his associates?

JBA: I left office early in 1996. By 1997, Fanmi Lavalas had emerged as a functional organisation, 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 programme laid out in our Livre Blanc: Investir dans l'humain, which I know you're familiar with. This programme 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 programme 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 recognise, it was a genuine programme, 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 organisation, 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 programme 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 programme we launched in 2001 was also working well; Cuban experts who helped us manage the programme 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 programme 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 programme, 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 senates 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 recognise 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 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 disappointing.

EDITOR's 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. An abbreviated version of the interview appeared in the London Review of Books 29:4 (22 February 2007), http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n04/hall02_.html. The text of the complete interview will 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.

Copyright © 2003-2007 Caribbean Net News. Reprinted from Caribbean Net News of Tuesday, February 20, 2007.

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