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Posted September 20, 2007
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Was President Aristide the Hero of Haiti?

Sameer Rahim reviews: An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution

to the Kidnapping of a President by Randall Robinson

ON February 29, 2004, the president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown for the second time. In the 1980s, the bespectacled priest had spoken out against the military dictatorships of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son "Baby Doc", despite violent attempts to silence him: a government-sponsored gang burned down his church while he was celebrating Mass, killing 12 of his congregation.

To many, he was the saviour of Haiti's poor – equal in stature to Mandela or Gandhi. He stood for president in 1990 and won with 67 per cent of the vote; a year later he was ousted in a military coup and only returned in 1994 when the US government sent troops to reinstate him.

Forbidden by law to stand consecutive terms, he took a hiatus but became president again in 2000, before being sent into exile four years later.

This complex story has a long history. Two hundred years ago, Haiti was the Caribbean's richest colony, exporting coffee, sugar, rum and indigo. One million Frenchmen depended on the labour of half a million slaves working on the island.

In his classic account, The Black Jacobins (1938), the historian C L R James wrote that conditions for the slaves were so terrible that "they often killed themselves, not for personal reasons, but in order to spite their owner".

Inspired by the ideals of the French revolution, a group of freed black slaves, led by Toussaint L'Overture, rebelled against their masters and, after 12 years of bloody conflict, founded a "Black Republic".

Just before the slaves' final victory in 1804, L'Overture was kidnapped by Napoleon and imprisoned in France where he died of exposure.

L'Overture – like Aristide – was a hero to dispossessed Haitians and radicals. Randall Robinson, the author of An Unbroken Agony, makes an explicit comparison: "Aristide, the ethical democrat...appeared a lineal disciple of L'Overture."

Robinson, a close friend of the former president, has written a sympathetic, occasionally hagiographic, version of Aristide's life. In his account of the 1988 church burning, he writes that "the assailants directed a fusillade of rounds at the priest as he stood looking calmly into their faces. None of the shots fired at close range struck him."

So why was Aristide overthrown? After Bill Clinton restored Aristide to power, there was a cooling of relations between the two countries. In 2003, on the bicentenary of L'Overture's death, Aristide demanded reparations of $21 billion from France to "build primary schools, primary healthcare, water systems and roads".

This was seen by many in the George W Bush administration as political posturing. Robinson quotes a Democratic Senator who said that Aristide was threatening the US's "very strong financial interests" in Haiti.

He doubled the country's minimum wage from 50p to £1 a day; this affected the profits of corporations such as Disney, which have supply factories there. He did not fully privatise the phone and electricity industries, which he had promised the US he would do in exchange for his 1994 restoration.

Bush sent Otto Reich, a diplomat who had been dealing aggressively with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, to sort out Haiti – but the president remained defiant.

The US spent $1.2 million on training anti-Aristide rebels. Robinson claims the president was kidnapped by these rebels; the US government claims he volunteered to leave. After the new government was installed, the US lifted its arms embargo on Haiti.

Although it covers the coup well, there is little acknowledgment of Aristide's faults.

After he returned in 1994, the amount of cocaine smuggled from Haiti to the US tripled from five per cent to 15 per cent of total imports. Aristide turned a blind eye or even encouraged the trafficking.

Although he is described throughout Robinson's account as "democratically elected", in 2000 the opposition boycotted the vote. Gangs of young men known as chimères bombed the houses of opposition leaders and human rights activists; the former mayor of Port-au-Prince, who was tortured by the military rulers both he and Aristide opposed, claimed that under Aristide the country was "in the hands of politically manipulated thugs". Amnesty International – once a supporter of Aristide – condemned the failure to stop these attacks, which his supporters claim had nothing to do with the president.

There is something in Robinson's argument that the 2004 coup was led by people who were, if anything, more violent and more corrupt than Aristide. The US had a murky role in overthrowing a man who in 2002, despite his authoritarianism, was shown by a Gallup poll to be Haiti's most popular and trusted politician.

Yet when Robinson writes that "every new school, housing project and Aids awareness front" provoked the US into removing Aristide, his claims shade into paranoia.

It doesn't help that this book is poorly organised, has few footnotes, no bibliography and quotes large sections from the diary of the author's wife. The human desire for heroes should not blind us to their faults. (Recent scholarship on L'Overture has discovered that he kept slaves and probably ordered massacres of his opponents.)

The most accurate part of Robinson's book is its title.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2007. Reprinted from The Telegraph of Wednesday, September 19, 2007., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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