Jean-Pierre Cloutier

Note : Summer 1987, one of the first articles published in the mainstream press on Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Salesian priest, Father Bertrand Aristide, is being removed from St-Jean Bosco parish in downtown Port-au-Prince and reassigned at the Croix-des-Missions parish on the outskirts of the city, near the Faculty of Agronomy in Damiens. He received his orders from a delegation of his hierarchic superiors that flew in from Caracas, Venezuela, and was given until August 15 to comply with the direction. Rumours of his transfer had been circulating for a while creating a stir in religious circles. Father Aristide, in his late twenties, had developed a wide following among the poor and underprivileged of the slum area of La Saline and among the catholic youth all over the country. A strong proponent of Liberation Theology, Father Aristide was famous for his sermons delivered in a style reminiscent of southern preachers in the U.S. There was a saying among his followers, "Pe Aristide ce nou, nou ce Pe Aristide" (Father Aristide is Us, We are Father Aristide).

Already, in May 1986, Father Aristide had received warning from his superiors concerning his open support for social change in Haiti and asking him to tone down the political overtones of his sermons. At the time, the priest of the poor had considered leaving the country if he could not express his support for the social struggle of the people. Sources from within the Church report growing dissension between those in the clergy who feel the need to get involved in social causes and those who would prefer the Church to remain within its traditional role.

News of Father Aristide's transfer spread across the country with the speed of light, and his followers started mobilizing in an attempt to prevent him from going. A day of reflection followed by a religious celebration was held in Port-au-Prince by groups of young disciples of the priest. They claimed the religious authorities intended to defuse the efforts deployed by a large sector of the clergy that openly sides with the poorest of the poor. The measure taken against "The Voice of the voiceless," as Father Aristide has often been described, is seen by the Church groups as a warning to other priests who actively adopt Liberation Theology principles.

But in Cap Haitien, things turned sour on Thursday, August 13. Father Aristide had gone to the Capital of the North to celebrate mass at the Notre Dame College. Earlier in the day, he had addressed a meeting of young catholics and had pronounced a conference on social changes in the country. After having described the struggle for democracy in the country, and supporting his theories with ample quotes from the Bible, Aristide said that if democracy was to set foot in the country, it would also have to reach the inner circles of the Church. The crowd had then peacefully dispersed, and in the afternoon returned for the eucharistic celebration. His sermon as usual centered on the need for social change through non-violent means. "The real revolution will not come until we rid the country of the bourgeois and reactionaries. We are not communists, we are catholics and nationalists. But we respect the communists." In spite of the fact that the gathering was peaceful, the army which had been deployed in the area started shooting in the air, and as people flowed out of the College chapel, soldiers shot tear gas at the crowd and created a near panic situation. Several youths were arrested and roughed up by the security forces. Shooting went on until late in the night as tires started burning in the La Fossette neighbourhood.

Meanwhile in Port-au-Prince, youths from Father Aristide's parish held a press conference to denounce what looked like a sanction against "Ti-Tide," another of his nicknames. They expressed fears for his safety, and concern that he may be exiled from the country. But furthermore, the youths stated that all progressive elements of the Church, priests and lay persons alike, could be affected by the wind of conservatism now blowing on the Haitian religious scene. On Friday, August 14, a group of 200 youth entered the cathedral of Port-au-Prince. A certain number of them started a hunger strike against the transfer of Father Aristide. Late in the night, Monsignor Lafontant, deputy archbishop of Port-au-Prince, visited the group and tried to mediate a settlement. However, a young girl speaking for the group reaffirmed their determination to go till the end. "We don't care if the army comes and shoots on us. We don't care if we die" said the girl. Asked by the press shortly after on his impressions, Monsignor Lafontant said "It's normal, these youths have been working with Aristide for a long time, and they love him."

Wind of conservatism or reassessment of the Church's social involvement, the facade of the Catholic Church seen for very long as an instrument of change in the country is showing signs of strain. In March of 1983, when the Pope pronounced his historic message "Things have got to change here!", support from the Pontiff galvanized a large part of the clergy and episcopate. The "Mouvman Ti-Legliz" (small church groups) were very open on their support to the under-privileged classes of Haiti. Much has been written on the role of the Church in the downfall of the Duvalier regime. For a while, church sermons and homilies delivered at Sunday masses were the hottest political and social discourse held in the country. After a few months, there was an attempted "revolte de palais" led against Monsignor Francois Wolf Ligonde, archbishop of Port-au-Prince, whom many said had too close ties to the former presidential family. But insiders say that the Vatican would not be told what to do, and that if there were changes to be brought, they would not be dictated by the local hierarchy.

To observers, the Church is sending crossed signals lately on its purported role in the social change in Haiti. Monsignor Romelus, bishop of Jeremie, led for a while the charge against the National Council of Government, coining the phrase "Rache Manyok," meaning pull out the roots of the actual government structure. By contrast, the Papal Nuncio attended the oath to the Constitution ceremony organized by the Armed Forces, implying tacit approval of the military-led junta. With Catholic missionaries being attacked in Jean Rabel and others threatened in different areas, and the transfer of Father Bertrand Aristide from St-Jean Bosco to Croix des Missions, it is becoming hard to refute the theory of dissension among the clergy ranks.

But in Haiti, religious beliefs or social theories of liberation go well beyond members of the clergy. The broadest support Aristide and other priests defending the thesis of Theology of Liberation comes from the youth sectors. From 9 year-old car washers to teen-aged college and university students and to "involved lay persons" in their twenties. One 9 year-old keeping busy wiping windshields on street corners said that Aristide had done a lot for him through his "Family is Life" program in the slum areas of La Saline. In his inadequate articulation of exactly what the program had done for him, the kid said he now understood that in spite of the fact he was an orphan left alone in life and sleeping in the streets, he now understood values like love, hope, tolerance, understanding of and caring for others. "The family is those you love" he said grinning. As for the teen-age girl studying Bible, she says "Jesus Christ walked with the people, lived with them, ate with them. All our bishops do is talk, talk, talk. No action. Father Aristide is on our side because he is one of us."

Maybe more meaningful in the long run analysis is this young man just turned 21, who says "They (meaning the government) always tell us (meaning the youths) we are the future of this country. What a farce. I don't see any future for my country if there is no real, drastic, deep-rooted change. We had hope in the National Council of Government, but it was more confusion on our part than anything else, and it didn't last very long. We trusted the Church, but with Father Aristide being transferred, it confirms our suspicions that we have been betrayed. We believe in Aristide, but not in the Church any more. We believe in those we feel are at our side, not just in words. Aristide can't go, we won't let them take him away."

The hunger strike monopolized the attention in the next days, as Monsignor Lafontant was pursuing his mediation efforts. Then, on August 19, two events happened at the cathedral. At 3:35 PM, a man trying to approach the strikers was intercepted by the security service set up by the youths. Asked to open a handbag for inspection, the individual refused, but he was immobilized by the young guards, and a loaded Colt .38 revolver was found in the handbag along with ammunition. Three other men accompanying him had time to run away. The individual admitted being a military from Caserne Dessalines. The youths informed the Casernes Dessalines, and a short while after, tension rose as a detachment of soldiers surrounded the cathedral. The soldiers asked that the individual be handed to them, which was done. The military then retreated from their positions.

Then came the denouement to the crisis. At around 8:30 PM, rumours started circulating that Father Aristide was on his way to the cathedral. Indeed, shortly after, he showed up at the cathedral along with Monsignors Lafontant, Romelus and Constant. Monsignor Lafontant addressed the crowd that, by that time, had filled the cathedral. He said Father Aristide was allowed to remain, in St-Jean Bosco. He also condemned the accusations of communism launched against certain progressive sectors of the Church, and demanded a serious inquiry be held on the Jean Rabel case. By doing so, he was fulfilling all the demands of the hunger strikers which decided to put an end to their protest action.

The culminating point of the evening was when Father Aristide himself, now elevated to the status of bona fide cult figure, addressed the crowd of about 1,500 sympathizers. He thanked the strikers and everyone who had supported them and then launched a short but vibrant attack on the National Council of Government. His words were met with loud applause and cheers. The crowd then dispersed peacefully, chanting and dancing, in a Carnaval-like atmosphere of joy and celebration.

The youths have won their point, and so has Father Bertrand Aristide. The Church hierarchy had to step back from its positions, something seldom seen in this country or elsewhere. Furthermore, it had to take a stand and radicalize its demands. In the complex political situation the country is experiencing, the rapports de force have been modified and Aristide and his followers will now have to be counted as holding more clout than ever before.

Ed. Note: Since this article was written, the situation has changed somewhat. Father Aristide held a press conference the day after the suspension of the hunger strike. During his meeting with the press, he stated openly that he stood for a socialist Haiti which would reflect more social justice. Then, on Sunday August 23, Father Aristide, three other priests and a group of lay people were ambushed on the outskirts of Saint Marc by a group of armed individuals. Several members of Father Aristide's group were severely beaten, with at least four of them requiring hospitalization. Their five vehicles were extensively damaged after volleys of rocks were thrown at them. The Ministry of Information deplored the incident and called for "peace and ponderation."


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