Enigmatic Father Aristide Exhibits A Haitian Character Lost in Translation


Nearly 20,000 U.S. soldiers patrol Haiti today in service to various objectives, including the restoration of U.S. prestige, the resumption of democracy and the safe return of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The exiled president and his advisers, capitalizing on the missteps as well as the best intentions of Washington, are managing one of the mightiest and most peaceful takeovers in history, all to be followed by economic aid on the order of $1 billion.

And all despite troubling denunciations heaped on Father Aristide by critics ranging from the Vatican to the Central Intelligence Agency.

As the result of poorly understood information and misinformation, Americans may know little of Father Aristide, a surpassingly charismatic and enigmatic figure. They have heard little of his thought and politics -- save for his famous ode to necklacing -- the practice of hanging gasoline-filled tires around the necks of enemies and igniting what he called little red bonfires in tires.

"A beautiful instrument" that "smells sweet," he called it.

The image is striking, and might well have disqualified him as the beneficiary of such an extraordinary rescue. To be sure, Father Aristide and Haiti, itself, are almost infinitely complex. In place of real understanding, the priest was called a "radical firebrand" by visiting journalists and U.S. diplomats alike. The necklacing speech gave that label the sort of legitimacy his detractors probably wanted.

In coming weeks, no doubt, more will be known of this man.

"He's a very Haitian character," says Amy Wilentz, author of a book that chronicles Father Aristide's rise as the voice of Haiti's poor, the embodiment of that country's struggle. "His real personality gets lost in cultural translation."

She describes him in her book as "a little stick of dynamite," remarking on "the energy of his gestures, his intense focus, his explosive bursts of eloquence, his devastating power."

What he loses in translation, she says, is the power of his speaking. Though he is a linguist, the language of his leadership is Creole. In English, he is not nearly so capable of irony and wit and provocative bombast -- nor would North Americans understand the wordplay so important to his home audiences.

Ms. Wilentz's book, "The Rainy Season, Haiti Since Duvalier," shows the full range of Father Aristide's most thoughtful and sometimes reckless rhetoric. It presents him against the panoply of exploitation, voodoo, corruption and evil that has been the history of a country once called "The Pearl of the Antilles."

Understanding Father Aristide's meaning when he speaks of the marvels of necklacing requires some knowledge of Haiti, of the Haitian military's murderous attacks on government critics, its gratuitous and purposeful intimidation of people -- its armed attacks on churches and polling places -- and the desperation all of that breeds.

When he spoke of necklacing, he had only words with which to combat assault rifles. His language was intentionally provocative, dangerous to him personally -- yet essential, he tells Ms. Wilentz, if the movement were to survive, if people were to see him as an inspired and reliable leader.

Throughout her book, Father Aristide speaks of the agony of his people and a new destiny, one he has tried to shape. He has endured -- some might say invited -- a half-dozen spectacular attempts on his life. Out of it, he emerges as no less a tribune of justice than was the Rev. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Gandhi. The stage is smaller, but the cause is the same -- and the opposition at least as brutal.

In the necklacing speech, he told the military junta in 1987, on behalf of labor union members: "Give us a blank slate [of government officers]. If you do not, then we will keep striking. We will give you blank streets. And if people do not clear the streets, then the streets will run red."

Often, it seemed, the blood would be his. Though Ms. Wilentz says these encounters have left him on the brink of nervous breakdown, he has been resilient, finding ways to use these failed efforts to enhance his stature.

"One thing about all the assassination attempts," Father Aristide said, "is that I survived them. I know that sounds silly or obvious, but think about it this way: Here you have a man everyone is against, the Macoutes [Haiti's secret police], the hierarchy of the church, the government, the army. They go after him, with guns, machetes, stones. What happens? He survives. How do you think this makes people feel? I'll tell you. They think I'm protected. That I can't be hurt.

"That Jesus or the spirits are protecting me. That I am indestructible. This is great protection for me, because it makes a hired killer a little reluctant to take me on. Who wants to have on his hands the blood of someone the spirits protect? Worse, if he comes to kill me, the odds are, he thinks, that I will survive and he will be punished. He thinks a powerful force is keeping me safe."

Father Aristide seems to have the same thought. He has given no quarter, taunted authority and dared it to come after him, refused to be in its debt.

'We, the people'

After the Tontons Macoutes stormed his church, killed many and bayoneted a pregnant woman, he put a Macoute mannequin in his office, dressed in Macoute colors.

"We dechouked [uprooted and removed] him," Father Aristide told Ms. Wilensky. (A period of Haitian history was known as the Dechoukaj, Creole for uprooting -- as in the uprooting of evil by the forces of good.)

"We?" she said. She thought it sounded like an admission, coming from a priest.

"We, the people, I mean," he said, smiling.

She found his symbolic merger with the poor demonstrable: "The congregation looks like a mirror of the priest: total concentration, rooted excitement. 'Titid, Titid,' the two next to me whisper in aroused unison, using his nickname, which carries connotations not only of small and cute but of street urchin as well. The girls watch the priest with their mouths open, their palms turned upward on their knees, their feet in and out of their too-tight shoes. No one wants to miss a word."

He was immersed in liberation theology, the idea that priests should be of politics as well as of the church.

"What weds the movement within the Church to the movement within Haitian society as a whole," he told Ms. Wilensky, "is liberation theology, which has filtered into the youth of our country, which invigorates them, which purifies their blood, which teaches these youths that either you are a Christian or you are not.

"And if you are a Christian," he went on, "you cannot allow what you are seeing to happen without saying something, because if you say nothing, you will be sinning by your silence. You will be sinning by your complicity.

"So, in order to avoid that sin, which is a mortal sin, we refuse to accept what is happening. We cast off corruption. If you're a Christian, you cannot accept to continue the Macoute corruption in this country. Well, then, you are obliged to take historic risks. You're obliged to participate in the historic movement of liberation theology. In other words, the resurrection of an entire people is occurring right now."

Though he and his followers had little ability to confront power on its own terms, Ms. Wilentz says Father Aristide's declarations were frequently regarded as preaching violence or preaching communism or preaching out of some demented, messianic delirium. And he did proceed as if he were a designated savior, a person who could be uncompromising because he alone understood Haiti's destiny.

'We do not bow'

U.S. interests in Haiti did not escape his condemnation. And though he eventually said that he was grateful to the United States for serving as the instrument of his and Haiti's deliverance, he continues to speak past the U.S. audience to the people of Haiti.

Father Aristide was caught in a sublime irony. He had been a harsh critic of the United States, and here it was dispatching nearly 20,000 troops to vouchsafe his homecoming.

He told Ms. Wilentz in the late 1980s: "I cannot accept that Haiti should be whatever the United States wants it to be. And it won't be, I can assure you of that.

"I don't know what Haiti will become in the future -- I know what I'd like it to become, what many would like it to become -- but one thing Haitians have made clear, from Dessalines [Haitian leader of the world's only successful slave uprising in 1803] to Dr. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, good and bad alike, is that we do not bow to the will of other nations. We may pretend to, but we don't.

"We have never been a client state."

He continues to speak and act in this way today, perhaps because friend and foe in Haiti are listening.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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