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Jean-Bertrand Aristide

I was just cleaning out my Haiti memorabilia, notebooks, newspapers, and sheer masses of stuff and index cards with notes on them like: “Gold!” when I found the notebook I used the last time I saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in July, 2000, a few months before his re-election to the presidency of Haiti, at the office in his house in Tabarre.

While I waited outside his office for our interview, I met a man who was then chief warden of Haiti’s prisons. He gave me his number so I could call him to make an appointment to discuss the assassination of Jean Dominique, one of Haiti’s most outspoken journalists, some four months earlier. He was most delighted that I would be calling him, and, he said, very eager to give me all the facts.

When I called the number after leaving Aristide, it turned out to have been disconnected.

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Jean Dominique, on one of his returns from exile

Today, Tabarre has been incorporated into Port-au-Prince as the city has grown from about 900,000 back in 1989 to a stunning possible 3 million. In part because Aristide built his house here,  the city has come out to meet the village and now it’s hard to discern Aristide’s house among the closely built structures that surround it.

I remember when the house stood alone, though, and that, as the sprawling, low-slung house was being built, you could stand on a terrace or roof and look out at the distant neighbor’s cornfields. Aristide built the house as he was leaving his pulpit in the Catholic Church in the late 1980s.

(It’s funny to me that the new U.S. Embassy, a gigantic heap that is probably the biggest building in Haiti other than the post-revolutionary Citadelle and possibly the new South Korean Sae-A garment factory in Caracol, is also located in Tabarre — built there in 2008, four years after Aristide was overthrown and forced into the exile from which he returned in 2011.)

I offer bits of conversation from our last interview for the record, without prejudice, just in case any of this was not included in my 2000 piece for The New York Times Magazine. Ours was a short conversation, interrupted by visits from Mildred Aristide and their two daughters, Michaela and Christine. But for all the family to-and-fro, our conversation was quite formal, as befitted a chat with a once and future president.

Aristide said:

I think when we analyze the problems we’ve had, that our mode of discourse early on was too much a strong discourse of the left, for example when I returned from the UN, and that that has been a burden to us since then.

The “mode of discourse” after his “return from the UN” that Aristide speaks of here was his famous “doesn’t it smell sweet?” speech in 1991 about the Haitian constitution, when he seemed to conflate the necklacing of his enemies with the beauties of the 1987 post-Duvalier Haitian charter, or so his detractors claimed.

He continued:

I welcome everyone here [to his office in Tabarre], without distinction: not only the street kids but also politicians and businessmen of all stripes. I know this one or that one may leave my office and give an order to have me killed, or may already have put out a contract, but I receive him with respect and courtesy, even those who participated in the coup [referring to the first coup  against him, in 1991 — the 2004 coup against him had not yet taken place]. I cannot nourish a sentiment of hatred in my heart. It would be bad for me and bad for the country.

When we met for this conversation, Aristide was wearing a suit and tie and a big gold wristwatch (a sign that he had abandoned the leftist political discourse he spoke of? — he had previously worn a cheap, black plastic, constantly beeping Casio), and sat on a big couch near an imposing presidential desk which was decorated with bouquets of Haitian flags.

I have tried to create [economic] situations where, instead of absolute monopoly, there is competition, more of a free market situation, though what Haiti needs is a free and fair market. The big Haitian families don’t like this because  they’ve never had to compete before. We’ve brought in foreign competition, and we’ve forced our own businessmen to compete against each other. This has divided them and made them less powerful.

Note: these new economic policies did not render the elite families of Haiti so unpowerful that they, along with Aristide’s many other enemies, could not successfully conspire to oust him in 2004.

Also the new economic policies that Aristide was trumpeting here to me were not of his own inspiration, but were rather pushed on him by the Clinton Administration in exchange for his return to power. He was also forced to privatize many industries as a part of the package.

In part as a result of the welcome he extended to “foreign competition” from 2000 on, Aristide participated in an acceleration of Haiti’s entry into the global economy that has had a traumatic effect on the standard of living for most Haitians, and that has been aggravated by the catastrophe of the 2010 earthquake.

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photo credit: Meranda Keller

The very first entry in my notebook that’s labeled “Haiti, 7/2000” is my own question, still unanswered: “Who killed Jean Dominique?” A few pages later, the then president René Préval told me that in the quest to find Dominique’s killers, “there are no untouchables.” A quote from Dominique’s wife, journalist Michèle Montas, a few pages farther on: “I still ask myself the same question. Who did it, and why?”

Will we ever know?

Okay.

Now I’m putting the notebook into a box, and bringing it up to the attic, where closed chapters go, even with the gravest mysteries still unsolved.

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