‘One Step at a Time’: An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide

By: Peter Hallward – HaitiAnalysis

Pretoria, 20 July 2006 – Complete transcript

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 courageous champion of the rights
and dignity of the poor, he soon became the most widely respected
spokesman of a growing popular movement against the series of military
regimes that ruled Haiti after the collapse in 1986 of the US-backed
Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990 he won the country’s first democratic
presidential elections, with 67% of the vote. Perceived as a dangerous
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 U.S. and France, has shaped the
whole of Aristide’s political trajectory. After winning another
landslide election victory in 2000, his enemies launched a massive
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 a reluctant exile in South Africa,
where he remains to this day.

Since his expulsion from Haiti three years ago Aristide’s supporters
have suffered the most brutal period of violent oppression in the
country’s recent history. According to the best available estimates
perhaps 5000 of them died at the hands of the US- and UN-backed régime
that replaced the constitutional government in March 2004. Although the
situation remains tense and UN troops still occupy the country, the
worst of this violence came to an end in February 2006, when after
another extraordinary electoral campaign Aristide’s old prime minister
and ally René Préval (who succeeded him as president in 1996) was
himself re-elected in yet another 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 quedará sin pueblo. If
the people cannot go to Puebla, Puebla will remain cut off from the

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
Romélus, 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’état. 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

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 Cité 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

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
René Préval 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, U.S.
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

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 Gérard
Pierre-Charles? Almost the whole of Préval’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 Gérard 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 nébuleuse ― 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-Gérald 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

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.

PH: In the press, meanwhile, you came to be presented not as the
unequivocal winner of legitimate elections, but as an increasingly
tyrannical autocrat.

JBA: Exactly. A lot of the $200 million or so in aid and development
money for Haiti that was suspended when we won the elections in 2000 was
simply diverted to a propaganda and destabilisation campaign waged
against our government and against Fanmi Lavalas. The disinformation
campaign was truly massive. Huge sums of money were spent to get the
message out, through the radio, through newspapers, through various
little political parties that were supposed to serve as vehicles for the
opposition… It was extraordinary. When I look back at this very
discouraging period in our history I compare it with what has recently
happened in some other places. They went to the same sort of trouble
when they tried to say there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I
can still see Colin Powell sitting there in front of the United
Nations, with his little bag of tricks, demonstrating for all the world
to see that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Look at this
irrefutable proof! It was pathetic. In any case the logic was the same:
they rig up a useful lie, and then they sell it. It’s the logic of
people who take themselves to be all-powerful. If they decide 1 + 1 = 4,
then 4 it will have to be.

PH: From My Lai to the Iran-Contras to Iraq to Haiti, Colin Powell has
made an entire career along these lines… But going back to May 2000:
soon after the results were declared, the head of the CEP, Leon Manus,
fled the country, claiming that the results were invalid and that you
and Préval had put pressure on him to calculate the votes in a
particular way. Why did he come to embrace the American line?

JBA: Well, I don’t want to judge Leon Manus, I don’t know what happened
exactly. But I think he acted in the same way as some of the leaders of
the Group of 184. They are beholden to a patron, a boss. The boss is
American, a white American. And you are black. Don’t underestimate the
inferiority complex that still so often conditions these relationships.
You are black. But sometimes you get to feel almost as white as the
whites themselves, you get to feel whiter than white, if you’re willing
to get down on your knees in front of the whites. If you’re willing to
get down on your knees, rather than stay on your feet, then you can feel
almost as white as they look. This is a psychological legacy of
slavery: to lie for the white man isn’t really lying at all, since white
men don’t lie! [laughs]. How could white men lie? They are the
civilised ones. If I lie for the whites I’m not really lying, I’m just
repeating what they say. So I don’t know, but I imagine Leon Manus felt
like this when he repeated the lie that they wanted him to repeat. Don’t
forget, his journey out of the country began in a car with diplomatic
plates, and he arrived in Santo Domingo on an American helicopter. Who
has access to that sort of transport?

In this case and others like it, what’s really going on is clear
enough. It’s the people with power who pull the strings, and they use
this or that petit nègre de service, this or that black messenger to
convey the lies that they call truth. The people recruited into the
Group of 184 did much they same thing: they were paid off to say what
their employers wanted them to say. They helped destroy the country, in
order to please their patrons.

PH: Why were these people so aggressively hostile to you and your
government? There’s something hysterical about the positions taken by
the so-called ‘Democratic Convergence’, and later by the ‘Group of 184’,
by people like Evans Paul, Gérard Pierre-Charles and others. They
refused all compromise, they insisted on all sorts of unreasonable
conditions before they would even consider participation in another
round of elections. The Americans themselves seemed exasperated with
them, but made no real effort to rein them in.

JBA: They made no effort to rein them in because this was all part of
the plan. It’s a little bit like what’s happening now [in July 2006],
with Yvon Neptune: the Americans have been shedding crocodile tears over
poor imprisoned Neptune, as if they haven’t been complicit in and
responsible for this imprisonment! As if they don’t have the power to
change the situation overnight! They have the power to undermine and
overthrow a democratically elected government, but they don’t have the
power to set free a couple of prisoners that they themselves put in
prison [laughs]. Naturally they have to respect the law, the proper
procedures, the integrity of Haitian institutions! This is all bluff,
it’s absurd.

Why were the Group of 184 and our opponents in ‘civil society’ so
hostile? Again it’s partly a matter of social pathology. When a group of
citizens is prepared to act in so irrational and servile a fashion,
when they are so willing to relay the message concocted by their foreign
masters, without even realising that in doing so they inflict harm upon
themselves ― well if you ask me, this is a symptom of a real pathology.
It has something to do with a visceral hatred, which became a real
obsession: a hatred for the people. It was never really about me, it’s
got nothing to do with me as an individual. They detest and despise the
people. They refuse absolutely to acknowledge that we are all equal,
that everyone is equal. So when they behave in this way, part of the
reason is to reassure themselves that they are different, that they are
not like the people, not like them. It’s essential that they see
themselves as better than others. I think this is one part of the
problem, and it’s not simply a political problem. There’s something
masochistic about this behaviour, and there are plenty of foreign
sadists who are more than willing to oblige!

I’m convinced it’s bound up with the legacy of slavery, with an
inherited contempt for the people, for the common people, for the
niggers [petits nègres]… It’s the psychology of apartheid: it’s better
to get down on your knees with whites than it is to stand shoulder to
shoulder with blacks. Don’t underestimate the depth of this contempt.
Don’t forget that back in 1991, one of the first things we did was
abolish the classification, on birth certificates, of people who were
born outside of Port-au-Prince as ‘peasants’. This kind of
classification, and all sorts of things that went along with it, served
to maintain a system of rigid exclusion. It served to keep people
outside, to treat them as moun andeyo ― people from outside. People
under the table. This is what I mean by the mentality of apartheid, and
it runs very deep. It won’t change overnight.

PH: What about your own willingness to work alongside people compromised
by their past, for instance your inclusion of former Duvalierists in
your second administration? Was that an easy decision to take? Was it

JBA: No it wasn’t easy, but I saw it as a necessary evil. Take Marc
Bazin, for instance. He was minister of finance under Jean-Claude
Duvalier. I only turned to Bazin because my opponents in Democratic
Convergence, in the OPL and so on, absolutely refused any participation
in the government.

PH: You were under pressure to build a government of ‘consensus’, of
national unity, and you approached people in the Convergence first?

JBA: Right, and I got nowhere. Their objective was to scrap the entire
process, and they said no straightaway. Look, of course we had a massive
majority in parliament, and I wasn’t prepared to dissolve a properly
elected parliament. What for? But I was aware of the danger of simply
excluding the opposition. I wanted a democratic government, and so I set
out to make it as inclusive as I could, under the circumstances. Since
the Convergence wasn’t willing to participate, I invited people from
sectors that had little or no representation in parliament to have a
voice in the administration, to occupy some ministerial positions and to
keep a balance between the legislative and the executive branches of

PH: This must have been very controversial. Bazin not only worked for Duvalier, he was your opponent back in 1990.

JBA: Yes it was controversial, and I didn’t take the decision alone. We
talked about it at length, we held meetings, looking for a compromise.
Some were for, some were against, and in the end there was a majority
who accepted that we couldn’t afford to work alone, that we needed to
demonstrate we were willing and able to work with people who clearly
weren’t pro-Lavalas. They weren’t pro-Lavalas, but we had already
published a well-defined political programme, and if they were willing
to cooperate on this or that aspect of the programme, then we were
willing to work with them as well.

PH: It’s ironic: you were often accused of being a sort of ‘monarchical’
if not tyrannical president, of being intolerant of dissent, too
determined to get your own way… But what do you say to those who argue
instead that the real problem was just the opposite, that you were too
tolerant of dissent? You allowed ex-soldiers to call openly and
repeatedly for the reconstitution of the army. You allowed
self-appointed leaders of ‘civil society’ to do everything in their
power to disrupt your government. You allowed radio stations to sustain a
relentless campaign of misinformation. You allowed all sorts of
demonstrations to go on day after day, calling for you to be overthrown
by fair means or foul, and many of these demonstrators were directly
funded and organised by your enemies in the U.S. Eventually the
situation got out of hand, and the people who sought to profit from the
chaos certainly weren’t motivated by respect for the rights of free

JBA: Well, this is what democracy requires. Either you allow for the
free expression of diverse opinions or you don’t. If people aren’t free
to demonstrate and to give voice to their demands there is no democracy.
Now again, I knew our position was strong in parliament, and that the
great majority of the people were behind us. A small minority opposed
us, a small but powerful minority. Their foreign connections, their
business interests, and so on, make them powerful. Nevertheless they
have the right to protest, to articulate their demands, just like anyone
else. That’s normal. As for accusations that I was becoming
dictatorial, authoritarian, and so on, I paid no attention. I knew they
were lying, and I knew they knew they were lying. Of course it was a
predictable strategy, and it helped create a familiar image they could
sell to the outside world. At home, however, everyone knew it was
ridiculous. And in the end, like I said before, it was the foreign
masters themselves who had to come to Haiti to finish the job. My
government certainly wasn’t overthrown by the people who were
demonstrating in the streets.

PH: Perhaps the most serious and frequent accusation that was made by
the demonstrators, and repeated by your critics abroad, is that you
resorted to violence in order to hang on to power. The claim is that, as
the pressure on your government grew, you started to rely on armed
gangs from the slums, so-called ‘chimères’, and that you used them to
intimidate and in some cases to murder your opponents.

JBA: Here again the people who make these sort of claims are lying, and I
think they know they are lying. As soon as you start to look rationally
at what was really going on, these accusations don’t even begin to
stand up. Several things have to be kept in mind. First of all, the
police had been working under an embargo for several years. We weren’t
even able to buy bullet-proof vests or tear-gas canisters. The police
were severely under-equipped, and were often simply unable to control a
demonstration or confrontation. Some of our opponents, some of the
demonstrators who sought to provoke violent confrontations, knew this
perfectly well. The people also understood this. It was common knowledge
that while the police were running out of ammunition and supplies in
Haiti, heavy weapons were being smuggled to our opponents in and through
the Dominican Republic. The people knew this, and didn’t like it. They
started getting nervous, with good reason.

The provocations didn’t let up, and there were some isolated acts of
violence. Was this violence justified? No. I condemned it. I condemned
it consistently. But with the limited means at our disposal, how could
we prevent every outbreak of violence? There was a lot of provocation, a
lot of anger, and there was no way that we could ensure that each and
every citizen would refuse violence. The president of a country like
Haiti cannot be held responsible for the actions of its every citizen.
But there was never any deliberate encouragement of violence, there was
no deliberate recourse to violence. Those who make and repeat these
claims are lying, and they know it.

Now what about these ‘chimères’, the people they call chimères? This is
clearly another expression of our apartheid mentality, the very word
says it all. ‘Chimères’ are people who are impoverished, who live in a
state of profound insecurity and chronic unemployment. They are the
victims of structural injustice, of systematic social violence. And they
are among the people who voted for this government, who appreciated
what the government was doing and had done, in spite of the embargo.
It’s not surprising that they should confront those who have always
benefited from this same social violence, once they started actively
seeking to undermine their government.

Again, this doesn’t justify occasional acts of violence, but where does
the real responsibility lie? Who are the real victims of violence here?
How many members of the elite, how many members of the opposition’s
many political parties, were killed by ‘chimères’? How many? Who are
they? Meanwhile everyone knows that powerful economic interests were
quite happy to fund certain criminal gangs, that they put weapons in the
hands of vagabonds, in Cité Soleil and elsewhere, in order to create
disorder and blame it on Fanmi Lavalas. These same people also paid
journalists to present the situation in a certain way, and among other
things they promised them visas ― recently some of them who are now
living in France admitted what they were told to say, in order to get
their visa. So you have people who were financing misinformation on the
one hand and destabilisation on the other, and who encouraged little
groups of hoodlums to sow panic on the streets, to create the impression
of a government that is losing control.

As if all this wasn’t enough, rather than allow police munitions to get
through to Haiti, rather than send arms and equipment to strengthen the
Haitian government, the Americans sent them to their proxies in the
Dominican Republic instead. You only have to look at who these people
were ― people like Jodel Chamblain, who is a convicted criminal, who
escaped justice in Haiti to be welcomed by the US, and who then armed
and financed these future ‘freedom fighters’ who were waiting over the
border in the Dominican Republic. That’s what really happened. We didn’t
arm the ‘chimères’, it was they who armed Chamblain and Philippe! The
hypocrisy is extraordinary. And then when it comes to 2004-2006,
suddenly all this indignant talk of violence falls quiet. As if nothing
had happened. People were being herded into containers and dropped into
the sea. That counts for nothing. The endless attacks on Cité Soleil,
they count for nothing. I could go on and on. Thousands have died. But
they don’t count, because they are just ‘chimères’, after all. They
don’t count as equals, they aren’t really people in their own right.

PH: What about people in your entourage like Dany Toussaint, your former
chief of security, who was accused of all kinds of violence and

JBA: He was working for them! It’s clear. From the beginning. And we
were taken in. Of course I regret this. But it wasn’t hard for the
Americans or their proxies to infiltrate the government, to infiltrate
the police. We weren’t even able to provide the police with the
equipment they needed, we could hardly pay them an adequate salary. It
was easy for our opponents to stir up trouble, to co-opt some policemen,
to infiltrate our organisation. This was incredibly difficult to
control. We were truly surrounded. I was surrounded by people who one
way or another were in the pay of foreign powers, who were working
actively to overthrow the government. A friend of mine said at the time,
looking at the situation, ‘I now understand why you believe in God, as
otherwise I can’t understand how you can still be alive, in the midst of
all this.’

PH: I suppose even your enemies knew there was nothing to gain by turning you into a martyr.

JBA: Yes, they knew that a mixture of disinformation and character
assassination would be more effective, more devastating. I’m certainly
used to it [laughs].

PH: How can I find out more about Dany Toussaint’s role in all this? He
wasn’t willing to talk to me when I was in Port-au-Prince a couple of
months ago. It’s intriguing that the people who were clamouring for his
arrest while you were still in power were then suddenly quite happy to
leave him in peace, once he had openly come out against you (in December
2003), and once they themselves were in power. But can you prove that
he was working for or with them all along?

JBA: This won’t be easy to document, I accept that. But if you dig
around for evidence I think you’ll find it. Over time, things that were
once hidden and obscure tend to come to light. In Haiti there are lots
of rumours and counter-rumours, but eventually the truth tends to come
out. There’s a proverb in Kreyol that says twou manti pa fon. Lies don’t
run very deep. Sooner or later the truth will out. There are plenty of
things that were happening at the time that only recently are starting
to come to light.

PH: You mean things like the eventual public admissions, made over the
past year or so by rebel leaders Rémissainthe Ravix and Guy Philippe,
about the extent of their long-standing collaboration with the
Convergence Démocratique, with the Americans?

JBA: Exactly.

PH: Along the same lines, what do you say to militant leftwing groups
like Batay Ouvriye, who insist that your government failed to do enough
to help the poor, that you did nothing for the workers? Although they
would appear to have little in common with the Convergence, they made
and continue to make many of the same sorts of accusations against Fanmi

JBA: I think, although I’m not sure, that there are several things that
help explain this. First of all, you need to look at where their funding
comes from. The discourse makes more sense, once we know who is paying
the bills. The Americans don’t just fund political groups willy-nilly.

PH: Particularly not quasi-Trotskyite trade unionists…

JBA: Of course not. And again, I think that part of the reason comes
back to what I was saying before, that somewhere, somehow, there’s a
little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction, in
saying things that powerful white people want you to say. Even here, I
think it goes something like this: ‘yes we are workers, we are farmers,
we are struggling on behalf of the workers, but somewhere, there’s a
little part of us that would like to escape our mental class, the state
of mind of our class, and jump up into another mental class.’ My hunch
is that it’s something like that. In Haiti, contempt for the people runs
very deep. In my experience, resistance to our affirmation of equality,
our being together with the people, ran very deep indeed. Even when it
comes to trivial things.

PH: Like inviting kids from poor neighbourhoods to swim in your pool?

JBA: Right. You wouldn’t believe the reactions this provoked. It was too
scandalous: swimming pools are supposed to be the preserve of the rich.
When I saw the photographs this past February, of the people swimming
in the pool of the Montana Hotel, I smiled [laughs]. I thought that was
great. I thought ah, now I can die in peace. It was great to see.
Because at the time, when kids came to swim in our pool at Tabarre, lots
of people said look, he’s opening the doors of his house to riff-raff,
he’s putting ideas in their heads. First they will ask to swim in his
pool; soon they will demand a place in our house. And I said no, it’s
just the opposite. I had no interest in the pool itself, I hardly ever
used it. What interested me was the message this sent out. Kids from the
poorer neighbourhoods would normally never get to see a pool, let alone
swim in one. Many are full of envy for the rich. But once they’ve swum
in a pool, once they realise that it’s just a pool, they conclude that
it doesn’t much matter. The envy is deflated.

PH: That day in February, a huge crowd of thousands of people came up
from the slums to make their point to the CEP (which was stationed in
the Montana Hotel), they made their demands, and then hundreds of them
swam in the Montana’s pool and left, without touching a thing. No
damage, no theft, just making a point.

JBA: Exactly. It was a joy to see those pictures.

PH: Turning now to what happened in February 2004. I know you’ve often
been asked about this, but there are wildly different versions of what
happened in the run-up to your expulsion from the country. The Americans
insist that late in the day you came calling for help, that you
suddenly panicked and that they were caught off guard by the speed of
your government’s collapse. On the face of it this doesn’t look very
plausible. Guy Philippe’s well-armed rebels were able to outgun some
isolated police stations, and appeared to control much of the northern
part of the country. But how much support did the rebels really have?
And surely there was little chance that they could take the capital
itself, in the face of the many thousands of people who were ready to
defend it?

JBA: Don’t forget that there had been several attempts at a coup in the
previous few years, in July 2001, with an attack on the police academy,
the former military academy, and again a few months later, in December
2001, with an incursion into the national palace itself. They didn’t
succeed, and on both occasions these same rebels were forced to flee the
city. They only just managed to escape. It wasn’t the police alone who
chased them away, it was a combination of the police and the people. So
they knew what they were up against, they knew that it wouldn’t be easy.
They might be able to find a way into the city, but they knew that it
would be hard to remain there. It was a little like the way things later
turned out in Iraq: the Americans had the weapons to battle their way
in easily enough, but staying there has proved to be more of a
challenge. The rebels knew they couldn’t take Port-au-Prince, and that’s
why they hesitated for a while, on the outskirts, some 40 km away. So
from our perspective we had nothing to fear. The balance of forces was
in our favour, that was clear. There are occasions when large groups of
people are more powerful than heavy machine guns and automatic weapons,
it all depends on the context. And the context of Port-au-Prince, in a
city with so many national and international interests, with its
embassies, its public prominence and visibility, and so on, was
different from the context of more isolated places like Saint-Marc or
Gonaïves. The people were ready, and I wasn’t worried.

No, the rebels knew they couldn’t take the city, and that’s why their
masters decided on a diversion instead, on attacks in the provinces, in
order to create the illusion that much of the country was under their
control, that there was a major insurrection under way. But it wasn’t
the case. There was no great insurrection: there was a small group of
soldiers, heavily armed, who were able to overwhelm some police
stations, kill some policemen and create a certain amount of havoc. The
police had run out of ammunition, and were no match for the rebels’
M16s. But the city was a different story.

Meanwhile, as you know on February 29 a shipment of police munitions
that we had bought from South Africa, perfectly legally, was due to
arrive in Port-au-Prince. This decided the matter. Already the balance
of forces was against the rebels; on top of that, if the police were
restored to something like their full operational capacity, then the
rebels stood no chance at all.

PH: So at that point the Americans had no option but to go in and get you themselves, the night of 28 February?

JBA: That’s right. They knew that in a few more hours, they would lose
their opportunity to ‘resolve’ the situation. They grabbed their chance
while they had it, and bundled us onto a plane in the middle of the
night. That’s what they did.

PH: The Americans ― Ambassador Foley, Luis Moreno, and so on ― insist
that you begged for their help, that they had to arrange a flight to
safety at the last minute. Several reporters were prepared to endorse
their account. On the other hand, speaking on condition of anonymity,
one of the American security guards who was on your plane that night
told the Washington Post soon after the event that the U.S. story was a
pure fabrication, that it was ‘just bogus.’ Your personal security
advisor and pilot, Frantz Gabriel, also confirms that you were kidnapped
that night by U.S. military personnel. Who are we supposed to believe?

JBA: Well. For me it’s very simple. You’re dealing with a country that
was willing and able, in front of the United Nations and in front of the
world at large, to fabricate claims about the existence of weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq. They were willing to lie about issues of
global importance. It’s hardly surprising that they were able to find a
few people to say the things that needed to be said in Haiti, in a small
country of no great strategic significance. They have their people,
their resources, their way of doing things. They just carried out their
plan, that’s all. It was all part of the plan.

PH: They said they couldn’t send peacekeepers to help stabilise the
situation, but as soon as you were gone, the troops arrived straight

JBA: The plan was perfectly clear.

PH: I have just a couple of last questions. In August and September
2005, in the run up to the elections that finally took place in February
2006, there was a lot of discussion within Fanmi Lavalas about how to
proceed. In the end, most of the rank and file threw their weight behind
your old colleague, your ‘twin brother’ René Préval, but some members
of the leadership opted to stand as candidates in their own right;
others were even prepared to endorse Marc Bazin’s candidacy. It was a
confusing situation, one that must have put great strain on the
organisation, but you kept very quiet.

JBA: In a dictatorship, the orders go from top to bottom. In a
democratic organisation, the process is more dialectical. The small
groups or cells that we call the ti fanmis are part of Fanmi Lavalas,
they discuss things, debate things, express themselves, until a
collective decision emerges from out of the discussion. This is how the
organisation works. Of course our opponents will always cry
‘dictatorship, dictatorship, it’s just Aristide giving orders.’ But
people who are familiar with the organisation know that’s not the way it
is. We have no experience of situations in which someone comes and
gives an order, without discussion. I remember that when we had to
choose the future electoral candidates for Fanmi Lavalas, back in 1999,
the discussions at the Foundation [the Aristide Foundation for
Democracy] would often run long into the night. Delegations would come
from all over the country, and members of the cellules de base would
argue for or against. Often it wasn’t easy to find a compromise, but
this is how the process worked, this was our way of doing things. So
now, when it came to deciding on a new presidential candidate last year,
I was confident that the discussion would proceed in the same way, even
though by that stage many members of the organisation had been killed,
and many more were in hiding, in exile or in prison. I made no
declaration one way or another about what to do or who to support. I
knew they would make the right decision in their own way. A lot of the
things ‘I’ decided, as president, were in reality decided this way: the
decision didn’t originate with me, but with them. It was with their
words that I spoke. The decisions we made emerged through a genuinely
collective process. The people are intelligent, and their intelligence
is often surprising.

I knew that the Fanmi Lavalas senators who decided to back Bazin
would soon be confronted by the truth, but I didn’t know how this would
happen, since the true decision emerged from the people, from below, not
from above. And no-one could have guessed it, a couple of months in
advance. Never doubt the people’s intelligence, their power of
discernment. Did I give an order to support Bazin or to oppose Bazin?
No, I gave no order either way. I trusted the membership to get at the

Of course the organisation is guided by certain principles, and I
drew attention to some of them at the time. In South Africa, back in
1994, could there have been fair elections if Mandela was still in
prison, if Mbeki was still in exile, if other leaders of the ANC were in
hiding? The situation in Haiti this past year was much the same: there
could hardly be fair elections before the prisoners were freed, before
the exiles were allowed to return, and so on. I was prepared to speak
out about this, as a matter of general principle. But to go further than
this, to declare for this or that candidate, this or that course of
action, no, it wasn’t for me to say.

PH: How do you now envisage the future? What has to happen next? Can
there be any real change in Haiti without directly confronting the
question of class privilege and power, without finding some way of
overcoming the resistance of the dominant class?

JBA: We will have to confront these things, one way or another. The
condition sine qua non for doing this is obviously the participation of
the people. Once the people are genuinely able to participate in the
democratic process, then they will be able to devise an acceptable way
forward. In any case the process itself is irreversible. It’s
irreversible at the mental level, at the level of people’s minds.
Members of the impoverished sections of Haitian society now have an
experience of democracy, of a collective consciousness, and they will
not allow a government or a candidate to be imposed on them. They
demonstrated this in February 2006, and I know they will keep on
demonstrating it. They will not accept lies in the place of truth, as if
they were too stupid to understand the difference between the two.
Everything comes back, in the end, to the simple principle that tout
moun se moun ― every person is indeed a person, every person is capable
of thinking things through for themselves. Either you accept this
principle or you don’t. Those who don’t accept it, when they look at the
nègres of Haiti ― and consciously or unconsciously, that’s what they
see ― they see people who are too poor, too crude, too uneducated, to
think for themselves. They see people who need others to make their
decisions for them. It’s a colonial mentality, in fact, and this
mentality is still very widespread among our political class. It’s also a
projection: they project upon the people a sense of their own
inadequacy, their own inequality in the eyes of the master.

So yes, for me there is a way out, a way forward, and it has to pass
by way of the people. Even if we don’t yet have viable democratic
structures and institutions, there is already a democratic
consciousness, a collective democratic consciousness, and this is
irreversible. February 2006 shows how much has been gained, it shows how
far down the path of democracy we have come, even after the coup, even
after two years of ferocious violence and repression.

What remains unclear is how long it will take. We may move forward
fairly quickly, if through their mobilisation the people encounter
interlocutors who are willing to listen, to enter into dialogue with
them. If they don’t find them, it will take longer. From 1992 to 1994
for instance, there were people in the U.S. government who were willing
to listen at least a little, and this helped the democratic process to
move forward. Since 2000 we’ve had to deal with a U.S. administration
that is diametrically opposed to its predecessor, and everything slowed
down dramatically, or went into reverse. The question is how long it
will take. The real problem isn’t simply a Haitian one, it isn’t located
within Haiti. It’s a problem for Haiti that is located outside Haiti!
The people who control it can speed things up, slow them down, block
them altogether, as they like. But the process itself, the democratic
process in Haiti itself, it will move forward one way or another, it’s
irreversible. That’s how I understand it.

As for what will happen now, or next, that’s unclear. The unknown
variables I mentioned before remain in force, and much depends on how
those who control the means of repression both at home and abroad will
react. We still need to develop new ways of reducing and eventually
eliminating our dependence on foreign powers.

PH: And your own next step? I know you’re still hoping to get back to
Haiti as soon as possible: any progress there? What are your own
priorities now?

JBA: Yes indeed: Thabo Mbeki’s last public declaration on this point
dates from February, when he said he saw no particular reason why I
shouldn’t be able to return home, and this still stands. Of course it’s
still a matter of judging when the time is right, of judging the
security and stability of the situation. The South African government
has welcomed us here as guests, not as exiles; by helping us so
generously they have made their contribution to peace and stability in
Haiti. And once the conditions are right we’ll go back. As soon as René
Préval judges that the time is right then I’ll go back. I am ready to go
back tomorrow.

PH: In the eyes of your opponents, you still represent a major political threat.

JBA: Criminals like Chamblain and Philippe are free to patrol the
streets, even now, but I should remain in exile because some members of
the elite think I represent a major threat? Who is the real threat? Who
is guilty, and who is innocent? Again, either we live in a democracy or
we don’t, either we respect the law or we don’t. There is no legal
justification for blocking my return. It’s slightly comical: I was
elected president but am accused of dictatorship by nameless people who
are accountable to no-one yet have the power to expel me from the
country and then to delay or block my return [laughs]. In any case, once
I’m finally able to return, then the fears of these people will
evaporate like mist, since they have no substance. They have no more
substance than did the threat of legal action against me, which was
finally abandoned this past week, once even the American lawyers who
were hired to prosecute the case realised that the whole thing was
empty, that there was nothing in it.

PH: You have no further plans to play some sort of role in politics?

JBA: I’ve often been asked this question, and my answer hasn’t changed.
For me it’s very clear. There are different ways of serving the people.
Participation in the politics of the state isn’t the only way. Before
1990 I served the people, from outside the structure of the state. I
will serve the people again, from outside the structure of the state. My
first vocation was teaching, it’s a vocation that I have never
abandoned, I am still committed to it. For me, one of the great
achievements of our second administration was the construction of the
University of Tabarre, which was built entirely under embargo but which
in terms of its infrastructure became the largest university in Haiti
(and which, since 2004, has been occupied by foreign troops). I would
like to go back to teaching, I plan to remain active in education.

As for politics, I never had any interest in becoming a political
leader ‘for life.’ That was Duvalier: president for life. In fact that
is also the way most political parties in Haiti still function: they
serve the interests of a particular individual, of a small group of
friends. Often it’s just a dozen people, huddled around their life-long
chief. This is not at all how a political organisation should work. A
political organisation consists of its members, it isn’t the instrument
of one man. Of course I would like to help strengthen the organisation.
If I can help with the training of its members, if I can accompany the
organisation as it moves forward, then I will be glad to be of service.
Fanmi Lavalas needs to become more professional, it needs to have more
internal discipline; the democratic process needs properly functional
political parties, and it needs parties, in the plural. So I will not
dominate or lead the organisation, that is not my role, but I will
contribute what I can.

PH: And now, at this point, after all these long years of struggle, and
after the setbacks of these last years, what is your general assessment
of the situation? Are you discouraged? Hopeful?

JBA: No I’m not discouraged. You teach philosophy, so let me couch my
answer in philosophical terms. You know that we can think the category
of being either in terms of potential or act, en puissance ou en acte.
This is a familiar Aristotelian distinction: being can be potential or
actual. So long as it remains potential, you cannot touch it or confirm
it. But it is, nonetheless, it exists. The collective consciousness of
the Haitian people, their mobilisation for democracy, these things may
not have been fully actualised but they exist, they are real. This is
what sustains me. I am sustained by this collective potential, the power
of this collective potential being [cet être collectif en puissance].
This power has not yet been actualised, it has not yet been enacted in
the building of enough schools, of more hospitals, more opportunities,
but these things will come. The power is real and it is what animates
the way forward.


itorial 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.