Jean Bertrand Aristide: Humanist or Despot?
The Jean Bertrand Aristide I know is markedly different from the one being portrayed in the media.
In 1995, when I was 19 years old, I traveled to Haiti to help set up Radyo Timoun, a radio station run by street children in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Over three and a half years I worked and often lived with the children of Lafanmi Selavi, a shelter for some of the nation's quarter of a million homeless children.
It was there that I came to know Jean Bertrand Aristide, not just as the president of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but also as a father, teacher, a friend, and a surrogate dad for hundreds of parentless street kids.
In his private life Aristide was very simple and, in many ways, unaffected by the power and prestige that went with being president. He lived in a beautiful but rather small house near the airport where he seemed to be oblivious to the deafening sound of airplanes taking off at all hours. He took piano lessons, played with his children, read books in a myriad of languages, and spent hours in meetings. After his first daughter was born, I often saw children from the neighborhood playing with the toddler under the mango tree while his wife Mildred watched.
The only time I saw their small swimming pool used was when groups of children -- usually street children, or kids from our radio station, or children attending literacy classes at the nearby Aristide Foundation for Democracy -- came over for a swim. One time, on the way home I asked the boys what they had discussed with Titid after lunch, and one of them volunteered, "We talked about dating girls and how you should be respectful, and about how to be a good man."
Our conversations were not frequent but when we did chat, he always treated me with respect and love in a very real way. Whether I struggled with algebra or with the Bible, he always took time to talk about equations or his own faith.
When I faced life after college with trepidation, he listened attentively to my fears and concerns before asking if I wanted advice. When I said yes, he helped me sort through my options. During a speaking tour in the south of Haiti, I accompanied him. To the impatience of his staff, he insisted that we drive slowly over the rocky and rutted roads. "It's not worth it to go fast if someone gets hurt," he said.
How then to reconcile Titid the humanist with what the media calls a despot of Haiti?
I don't know, and frankly, I've been struggling with that question. When I spoke with Haitians working for a few pennies an hour sewing clothes for American companies, I was frustrated that Aristide insisted on following a democratic process to raise the minimum wage knowing that the process would be slower and result in a lower minimum than if he just unilaterally raised it himself.
Aristide said, "Change takes time, Lyn. Some people have spent years paying Haitians very little. When I wanted to raise the minimum wage in 1991, they had a coup and you know what happened." He reminded me that he had gone to parliament to raise the minimum wage in 1994, though it was still very low. "Of course people should be paid more, but in a democracy we have to share power and this is what was [voted on.]" he said.
When a major American daily paper published an article that portrayed Aristide as a despot, I was aghast. "Don't you care that they're saying this about you?" I asked him. As much as I disagreed with some of his politics, I was hurt when I saw him so maligned.
Aristide always had an answer: "What is important is not journalists, it's to make democracy real. How can we say we love our brother but we let him starve? How can we say we want democracy but we do nothing when people have no home? How can people have peace in their hearts when they have no peace in their stomach?"
There are, he added, "Larger forces at work here than you or me, forces that have a big stake in our small country."
Knowing President Aristide, I would guess that his staff was much more concerned with how the international media portrayed him than he was personally. Perhaps in the end that was one of his bigger mistakes, failing to focus on winning over the world's opinion.
My opinion about Titid hasn't changed, however. I will always know Titid as a humanist over the failed politician. And during this chaotic time, I remember him and his family and wish them peace.
Lyn Duff is a freelance writer currently based in Jerusalem. She is writing a book on Haiti.