By Peter Hallward, originally published on HaitiAnalysis, March 3, 2012
Amy Wilentz's book The Rainy Season (1989) is widely applauded as the most compelling account of Jean Bertrand Aristide's political youth, and so her judgement of his political legacy carries exceptional weight. The way history remembers Aristide’s controversial second presidency (2001-2004) will cast a shadow over Haiti's political future for a long time to come. The ongoing demonisation of Aristide–in particular by those who like Wilentz once supported him–contributes directly to the ongoing disempowerment of the millions of ordinary people who rallied around the Lavalas mobilisation he led.
In this new article (The Nation, print edition of March 19, 2012), Wilentz writes: "As everyone in Haiti knows, Aristide’s enemies have, sometimes plausibly, attributed a series of assassinations and human rights violations to Aristide supporters or to his party or to his administration or even to the former president himself. It’s assumed that during the seven years of his South African exile, one thing that kept Aristide from returning to Haiti was fear of prosecution on such charges. He understands that his foes would love to see him arrested, jailed and brought before an unfriendly judiciary."
Aristide's understanding of his many foes, it's now assumed, thus serves to get the most prominent among them off the legal hook.
According to prosecutor Wilentz, the return of both Aristide and Duvalier to Haiti confirms one and the same legal-democratic deficit. Impunity for one implies impunity for all, and in this sense the legacy of Haiti's first democratic leader would amount, perversely, to the exoneration of dictatorship.
It's a neat argument, and a familiar one -- but it's starkly at odds with the facts of the case, and it contributes to a widespread and disastrous misrepresentation of history.
If Aristide himself really understands things this way, it's strange that (as Brian Concannon and many others have pointed out) he seems to have done everything possible, from the day after the February 2004 coup to his eventual release from exile seven years later, to return himself to the mercy of those foes who used every means at their disposal to drive him out of the country. At least some of these foes, by contrast, soon came to understand the issue differently: although in 2004 a degree of shameless legal pretence helped misrepresent the US-backed coup that overthrew him as a restoration of Haitian democracy, a couple of years later the team of Chicago-based lawyers hired to press some of the most 'plausible' charges against Aristide came to the conclusion that they were wasting their time, and quietly dropped the case. Was this another regrettable case of undemocratic impunity? Or could it be that those who pretended to indict Aristide, back in 2004-06, were motivated by something other than a concern for justice?
As Joe Emersberger points out in a previous response to Wilentz's article, if the persistence of impunity is to serve as a benchmark of democratic legitimacy, what are we to make of the persistence of impunity for those easily-identified foes who actually overthrew Haitian democracy, both in 1991 and again (with arguably yet more calamitous consequences) in 2004? Imagine for a moment what it might take for George W. Bush, Colin Powell and their associates to face justice in Haiti. The U.S. account of what happened to Aristide in 2004 is full of such flagrant falsehoods that refutation is almost a redundant exercise (see, for instance, Did he jump or was he pushed?, by this writer, Dec 16, 2007); the issue here, 'it is assumed', doesn't so much concern the facts of the case as the relative power of those who might want to prosecute it.
More to the point, presumably Wilentz includes herself among Aristide's diverse collection of foes, since in the run-up to that 2004 coup she contributed a good deal to the representation of Haiti's most popular political figure as an illegitimate and 'uncompromising' tyrant. (Never mind the rather sobering number of compromises that Aristide actually made, or was forced to make, from the start of his first administration to the end of his second and that demoralised many of his more committed supporters: references to his supposedly 'uncompromising' and intransigent style have always appeared high on the list of charges against him). In what were to be Aristide's last months in office, Wilentz probably did more than any other American journalist to help make murky attributions of assassination and human rights violations as plausible as possible.
In particular, at a pivotal moment in the run-up to the February 2004 coup, she helped spread rumours, carefully cultivated by some of his other foes, that Aristide might have approved the assassination of his veteran supporter Amiot Métayer, in Gonaives, in September 2003 (see esp. The Ambulance Chasers, by Kevin Pina, Nov 6, 2003). Immediate attribution of responsibility for this gruesome killing to Aristide was one of the key moves in the elaborate international campaign to discredit him, the campaign that led directly to the coup and the thousands of further killings it entailed in due course.
On October 12, 2003, for instance, Wilentz published an article in the LA Times entitled Haiti: A Savior Short on Miracles. Although this article stopped short of an explicit endorsement of the accusation that Aristide was 'responsible for Métayer's death, it did help lend the idea a degree of 'plausibility'. After describing the murder and the reactions it provoked (or was meant to provoke?), Wilentz offered a general characterisation of the Lavalas government, in terms that would soon be taken up in a wide variety of media outlets:
Aristide permitted and then upheld an invalid legislative election that gave his party an overwhelming mandate to run the country, but that also destroyed any hope there was of compromise between his people and the wealthy Haitians who influence American politicians and control a good portion of Haiti's economy. In addition, he foolishly alienated all the intellectuals and artists and do-gooders who had supported him in his time of need.
Far worse things are true: His government has repeatedly failed to apprehend perpetrators of the grossest human rights abuses, including assassinations of his former allies and friends and of journalists of all stripes. More repugnant, a man who embodied the movement against Duvalier and his Tontons Macoute, or secret police, now has numerous secret armed militias working on his behalf and spreading terror among the opposition.
No matter who killed Métayer, Aristide has been a bitter disappointment. He is, however, a master manipulator and a talented political contortionist.
Although this isn't the place to demonstrate the point, it certainly required a good deal of talent and contortion to characterise Aristide's second presidency in this light (the reference to 'intellectuals and do-gooders' is an especially nice touch), or to attribute Métayer's still-unsolved murder to Aristide rather than to those well-connected foes who had every interest and every opportunity to pin it on him.
It could be that Wilentz had access to information that remains hidden from other observers, in which case it would be good to know what it is. When I asked Wilentz about this particular attribution a few years ago, however, she was reluctant to provide further details, though she did give permission to quote an admission that when she wrote about "possible Aristide involvement in the killing of Amiot Métayer I wrote from a great distance (geographical as well as time spent out of the country), and I think now that I may have been played by certain anti-Aristide elements" (letter from Wilentz, February 25, 2007, cited in Damming the Flood, chapter 9, note 10).
But rather than correct this possible misrepresentation here, Wilentz's latest article in The Nation returns to another theme long favoured by some of the leading players among Aristide's foes, people like former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega–the idea that "the Aristide regime bore too much of a resemblance to the Duvalier regime,"
(Haiti at the Crossroads of Democracy?, by Roger Noriega, 14 April 2004), and thus no doubt deserved to be overthrown (and then prosecuted) by fair means or foul. More sensitive to 'instinctive' Haitian sensibilities, Wilentz suggests we might think of Aristide, Préval and Duvalier as divine triplets who (to avoid sacrilege?) 'must be treated equally. If one is punished, all three must be punished in the same fashion.'
Equality is a fine principle. Perhaps on that basis we could start by clarifying the prosecution's case. Wilentz notes that "the Duvalier 'governments' were responsible for an estimated 30,000 deaths over almost thirty years." How many deaths does she attribute to Aristide's governments?
Peter Hallward is the author of Damning the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment (2007, reprinted with a new afterword in 2011) as well as numerous articles and essays on Haiti. He is a professor of modern European philosophy at Kingston University in London, England.