Twenty-five years ago today, Haiti’s military leaders overthrew the Caribbean nation’s first democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic, 39-year-old former Roman Catholic priest – just eight months into his five-year term.
Almost immediately after General Raoul Cedras announced the ouster and the formation of a junta, there was speculation as to Aristide’s fate. “Titid,” as he was called by his supporters among Haiti’s impoverished majority, had been the target of previous assassination attempts.
Only a few years before, masked gunmen shot several parishioners at Aristide’s church in an attempt to silence his public criticism against the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of former President Jean-Claude Duvalier. Aristide managed to escape, went into hiding and was subsequently spirited away into exile in Montreal by the Catholic Church.
It appeared that Aristide would suffer the fate of so many of Haiti’s leaders who had been murdered in office. However, U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats intervened with the junta, who spared Aristide and sent him to exile in the United States, where detractors hoped he would fade into oblivion.
However, Aristide – who settled in Washington, D.C. – tenaciously clung to his title as Haiti’s legitimate leader. He was supported by the Organization of American States, which had recently pledged to reject non-democratically elected members. President Bill Clinton and the U.S. State Department also supported Aristide, slapping on harsh economic sanctions and began talks with Haiti’s military regime and its supporters in a diplomatic effort to restore Aristide.
And, perhaps pivotally, Aristide was adopted by Randall Robinson, the executive director of the then-powerful African-American foreign policy lobby in Washington, D.C. Robinson, who had helped lead the Free South Africa Movement, made Haiti a cause celebre – lionizing Aristide in the process, who became an ever-present figure in Washington during his exile.
After three years, Cedras and Haiti’s military leaders were given an ultimatum delivered by a high-powered U.S. delegation, led by former President Jimmy Carter and General Colin Powell, to step aside and allow Aristide’s return, or face an American military invasion.
Haiti’s military regime finally buckled just hours before 20,000 American troops began what some have dubbed “The Immaculate Invasion.” General Cedras fled into exile in Panama, quickly followed by other senior officials. Aristide, flanked by President Clinton and Randall Robinson, returned to Port-au-Prince before a tumultuous crowd of an estimated 250,000 supporters.
Begrudgingly, Aristide, who argued that he had been sidelined by the military for most of his five-year term, agreed to step down in January 1995. He was succeeded by his political protégé, Rene Preval. However, Aristide’s shadow loomed over Preval as Haiti’s most powerful political figure, nor did he conceal his ambition to once again to become president. The political estrangement between the mentor and the protégé was gradual but complete.
In 2000, as expected, Aristide announced he was running for Haiti’s presidency. Unlike 10 years before, voter turnout was low, amid a boycott by opposition parties and reports of widespread voting fraud and violence involving Aristide’s supporters. The defrocked Catholic priest easily won Haiti’s presidential election, but he had lost much of his international prestige.
Under Aristide’s second term as president, more Haitians had access to shelter, health and education, but the country’s economy – the poorest in the Western Hemisphere – continued to struggle.
Meanwhile, Aristide was accused of becoming increasingly autocratic, making veiled threats at his detractors, including those in the media. Supporters of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas movement were accused of intimidating and killing opponents.
By 2004, Aristide’s political fortunes had waned. He had lost support among some of his supporters for breaking some of his lofty promises to the poor. Student and worker protests broke out. Aristide was also dogged by allegations of corruption, specifically the charge that his government was involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Even worse, he had little international support, with Randall Robinson in retirement and a George W. Bush administration that was clearly antagonistic to Aristide's policies.
By February – amid a growing armed rebellion in the north of the country that spread to Port-au-Prince – Aristide, his family, friends and bodyguards boarded an American plane and were flown, once more, into exile, this time to the Central African Republic. Upon his arrival in Bangui, Aristide claimed that he had been “kidnapped” and insisted he would return to Haiti.
Instead, Aristide flew to South Africa, where he was a guest of that government. Living with his wife and two children in Pretoria, Aristide learned Zulu and earned a doctorate in African languages. Yet, he closely followed developments in Haiti and vowed he would return once more.
In February 2011, following the return from France of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, Aristide also flew back home to Haiti. Given a warm welcome by supporters, Aristide adopted a low-profile presence after his return, concentrating on raising his family and rarely speaking out on Haiti’s turbulent politics.
The lure of politics, however, has proved irresistible. This week, on the 25th anniversary of the coup that interrupted his first term as Haiti’s president, Aristide returned to the hustings, this time in support of another protégé, Dr. Maryse Narcisse, one of 27 candidates in Haiti’s Oct. 9 presidential elections.
Apparently, not content with merely supporting Narcisse, Aristide has once more repeated the promises of his own previous presidential campaigns of promising to build homes and schools in a country still struggling to recover from the devastating 2012 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people.
Sunni Khalid lives in Oakland, California. He is a past recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Ben Grauer Award and the Columbia University School of Journalism's Silver Baton Award for his coverage of Haiti and South Africa, respectively. The former foreign correspondent and amateur boxer is currently writing a book on Egypt.