Letter From Haiti

Nearly five years ago, on February 7, 1986, after President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country, I found myself wandering through the crumbling streets of Port-au-Prince, gazing at thousands of Haitians who, for the first time in a generation, appeared to be genuinely happy. They seemed as though they would explode with joy - waving their arms, dancing uninhibitedly, wearing smiles so broad their faces could barely contain them. In 1986 they were even cheering the army, crowds carrying soldiers overhead. "Alleluia, Duvalier alle!"

Five years, three election attempts, four military juntas, one puppet regime, one corrupt civilian transitional government, three coups d'etat, a couple of states of siege, and unknown hundreds of deaths later, I found myself wandering those same streets. The pavement had deteriorated even more, but the same hopeful citizens were in a jubilant frenzy once again, shouting that they were free, that at last the country was theirs, that they were saved.

How many times have the slightly akimbo, eighteenth-century wooden houses of Port-au-Prince, with their collapsing fretwork balconies, witnessed this same sight? How many times can you be cheated without growing cynical? You would think a people who have endured three centuries of hunger, betrayal, and violence would become suspicious and distrustful. But deja vu, the mysterious sense that you have seen this before, apparently is not a part of the Haitian character.

Perhaps the previous day's election had in fact been the best in Haiti's 186 years of independence. Was that going to guarantee freedom and safety and food? Even if radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide were elected, did that mean he would actually take power, hold on to it, and use it wisely? There were a lot of things to worry about, still a long list of problems standing between these elated Haitians and deliverance. Just getting from the December 16 election to the February 7 inauguration would require some luck, I thought. Maybe even a miracle.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, a somber, thoughtful former priest whose entire family was slaughtered by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, was not one to run wildly through the streets. He had more than a few reservations about Aristide, both the man and his chances of success. But he offered an explanation of the Haitian character. "Tomorrow belongs to God," he said. "If we can get free today, it will be our revenge."

Among United States officials, foreign policy very much resembles that aspect of the Haitian character: equally little perception of deja vu, and a similar knack for experiencing every moment as brand-new. If it works today, let God take care of tomorrow. Or as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson put it while in Port-au-Prince to observe the elections, "The U.S. government has tried to act on its hopes and not its fears."

Through the knotty mess of regimes these past five years, U.S. officials have been trying to twist arms in hopes of prying loose some kind of presentable election in Haiti, just as they have stubbornly insisted that each Haitian president, including Jean-Claude Duvalier, was working to bring democracy to the land. But the U.S. has needed a "good" election to give its wholehearted blessing. On the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic, the U.S. has been arm-twisting for "good" elections since 1965, when the Marines invaded to settle a civil war in favor of the rebels who had overthrown Marxist Juan Bosch. The ousted Bosch had been the first person in Dominican history to achieve power through a fair election, but the Americans were not fond of the victor. Twenty-five years later democracy in the Dominican Republic still has quotation marks around it. December 16 may have signaled the start of Haiti's journey toward democracy, but there remained a treacherous road ahead. As with the ill-fated Dominican Republic, Haiti was beginning with an elected leader who was not favored by U.S. officials, a man who had gained immense popularity through dramatic speeches in which he has blamed his nation's woes on the Americans and their imperialism.

Given the several attempts on Aristide's life, it's likely he will be a president rarely seen, if he is successfully inaugurated. Fellow priests are skilled at keeping him hidden, and even his political organizers have little contact with him. His public appearances, brief and unpredictable, only added to his mystique. On the Friday before the Sunday election, for example, he showed up at his own rally two hours late, stayed for only two minutes, then disappeared again. Eight thousand people were left gaping. On election day, he was seen only for an instant, as he voted. Aristide's elusiveness, however, shouldn't be mistaken for shyness. He is an emotional man who becomes visibly ecstatic when his crowds of supporters roar their approval. (He has his down moments as well, including at least two nervous breakdowns in his 37 years.)

Aristide encourages comparison with Jesus, who also was said to appear mystically and then vanish. When he was expelled from his Salesian order in 1988, after defying the church's hierarchical authority, Aristide pointed out that "Jesus was not a priest; he was a lay worker." One of those nagging doubts: Father Aristide, that frail, soft-spoken man whose glasses seem too heavy for his small face, exhibits signs of megalomania. During a 1987 conversation, when I remarked that he seemed interested in political office even though the church would not allow this of a priest, he quietly said, "That's true, but if the people demand me, what can I do?"

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