“A Dream Deferred: My Personal Journey with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti, and the Haitian People”
Every young person in Haiti is politically conscious, and arguably, the Haitian people are socially conscious about the human condition and predicament in Haiti. If you grow up in a country that has a history of political instability and corruption, you will be politically conscious at a young age, and also, you will be socially aware about the human experience and future hope in that nation or elsewhere.
I was born in 1978 under the brutal and corrupt regime of Jean Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) (21 April 1971-7 February 1986) and grew up under some of the most notorious power-hungry charlatan Haitian politicians and presidents, including the following:
–Jean Claude Duvalier (21 April 1971-7 February 1986)
–Henri Namphy (7 February 1986-7 February 1988)
— Prosper Avril (17 September 1988-10 March 1990)
–Raoul Cédras (29 September 1991-8 October 1991)
–Marc Bazin (19 June 1992-15 June 1993)
I was 12 years old when the former Catholic Priest and Liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide initiated what many of us young Haitians believed to be a radical transformation in Haiti’s political scene and civil society. Officially, Aristide’s struggle against Haiti’s political totalitarianism and dictatorship began in 1985 through a series of revolutionary speeches and radical sermons sourced in the Biblical Prophetic rhetoric and Liberation Theology Tradition. In 1985, he told the Haitian people, “The path of those Haitians who reject the regime is the path of righteousness and love.” Clearly, Aristide was mobilizing the people to protest the Duvalier regime and to oppose violence, poverty, corruption, and dehumanization in Haiti’s political and civil societies.
Nonetheless, it was in the early 1990s that I began to “feel” Aristide’s transformative rhetoric of power and persuasion. I was still 12 years old in 1990; I understood something beautiful, righteous, cathartic, dignified, and remarkable was happening in the Haitian society and to the Haitian people. Aristide’s presidential campaign was a promising journey characterized by what I theorized eight categorical and practical freedoms: (1) freedom of democracy, joy, and peace; (2) freedom from dictatorship and political violence and corruption; (3) freedom from poverty and blackout; (4) freedom from mass illiteracy and general miseducation; (5) freedom from mass unemployment (chomaj) and disenfranchisement; (6) freedom from Haiti’s oppressed and ruling class; (7) freedom from foreign (imperial) intervention and (neocolonial) occupation; and (8) freedom to dream again and to craft a new future for ourselves in Haiti—not in a foreign land (i.e. Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, U.S.A., France, Canada, Germany, Belgium). Because of the Lavalassian turn in Haitian politics, at 12 years old, I also understood that Haiti’s political scene would never be the same, and that the Haitian society would be changed for the common good and human flourishing. This gesture was not only symbolic and representative; it was a common hope and shared attitude that I shared with my Middle school classmates.
The Haitian people were tired of the national history of political failures and disappointments; they were also warried about living a life characterized by permanent starvation, poverty, national insecurity, medical anxiety, civil and political unrest, social incoherence, blackout, illiteracy, underdevelopment, etc. As young Haitians in the 1990s, we longed for national peace and security, political stability, and autonomy. We were optimistic that God would cause his grace to shine upon us and that he will visit our land, our Ayiti cheri, to effect practical and holistic change in every area and department in our society. We also longed for fraternal communion and fellowship, national unity, and reconciliation. As young people, we saw in Jean-Bertrand Aristide the ideal political figure and the Christian-theologian reformer who would lead the way, guide us toward justice and peace, and take the Haitian people from the way of dictatorship and oppression to the realization of our second emancipation and our second independence. At 12 years old, Aristide was my hero and role model, and arguably, in my perspective, he was the most important Haitian politician and religious figure who has graced the Haitian soil and my world, respectively.
When I immigrated to the United States at 15 years old, Aristide was serving his brief second term (15 June 1993-12 May 1994). Aristide’s first presidential term lasted only 234 days (7 February 1991-29 September 1991). He was ousted violently through a coup d’état—a long political tradition in Haiti’s political life that often resulted in civil unrest and social incoherence. When that occurred, we felt that our common hope has gone, and our shiny light has disappeared in a twinkle of an eye and from our sight. Many young people of my age became severely depressed, disappointed, and even worried about the future of our education, our individual dreams, and our own future in Haiti, as well as the collective future, dream, and hope of the country—as if there were anything to dream about and hope for in a hopeless and suffering country. The words of lament in Langston Hughes’ poem (“Harlem”) come to mind:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
For this 12-year-old Haitian boy, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the deferred dream of the Haitian people. He was our postponed future. He was the moon in the darkness whose light vanished from us, our destiny. Nonetheless, paradoxically, we Haitians know the power of suffering and the power of hope. Correspondingly, ironically, we understand the joy of friendship and the pleasure of political alienation and exile. We Haitian citizens are not even surprised when a seated Haitian president is overthrown by a coup d’état. Such political attitude has already marked our common life and defined the Haitian reality—especially our childhood experience.
When I left Haiti for the United States, I was happy that (1) I was coming to join my father in the state of Florida, and (2) that I will be able to realize some of my dreams and goals—the things that I thought I would be able to fulfill in my native land under the administration of Aristide. (Jean-Bertrand Aristide promised us Haitians democratic hope, a new life, an alternative political future, the ability to dream again, and the endless opportunity to begin again; as a nation in crisis and a people in a state of renovation, becoming, and rebirth, his administration assured us immeasurable future possibilities toward societal progress and human flourishing in the Haitian society.) Yet I was sad that I will be leaving behind a country that I so loved and a people whom I treasured deeply in my heart. I became nostalgic during my first year in the United States. Only after a year living in the states have I returned to my country of birth to visit my childhood friends from whom I separated because of migration; the Haitian landscape and tropical weather that I terribly missed; and the beauty, joy, and pleasures of Haiti’s peasantry wherein I spent my childhood summers, made numerous acquaintances and friends, and learned under the feet of our Lakou’s elders about our Afro-Haitian traditions and customs.
To go further, after successfully graduating from High School and College in the states, it was during my first year as a graduate student at the University of Louisville (UofL) (KY) that I began to rethink more critically and meaningfully about the significance of Jean-Bertrand Aristide for Haiti and for the Haitian people, and about our collective future and individual hope. In the academic year 2003-2004, I was enrolled in a course offered by the Pan-African Studies Department of the University of Louisville taught by a Black professor (the incredible and magnificent Dr./Dean Blaine Hudson!). Dr. Hudson engaged us in a dynamic classroom conversation about the political injustice done to President Aristide and how the great powers of the West (i.e. the United States, France, Canada) mobilized and united to get rid of him, even to the point of a forced exile in South Africa. He was specific about the history of U.S. unfavorable policy and complicity, violence, and misconduct of the United States government (i.e. the Clinton Administration) toward Haiti, the Haitian people, and ultimately Aristide, correspondingly. At that time, I was not the 12-year-old boy in Haiti, but a 25-yr-old graduate student in a foreign land, but in my newly-adopted country through the process of naturalization and acquired new citizenship.
Professor Blaine had armed me with both epistemological tools and resources, and the intellectual and political perspectives and power to reconsider with a fresh and critical lens the history of Haitian politics and the history of diplomatic relations of the United States with Haiti, respectively. The words of Derek Walcott in his magnificent poem, “Lost Empire,” about the end of colonialism and imperialism and their legacy come to mind:
“And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden.
Its victories were air, its dominions dirt:
Burma, Canada, Egypt, Africa, India, the Sudan.
The map that had seeped its stain on a schoolboy’s shirt
like red ink on a blotter, battles, long sieges.
Dhows and feluccas, hill stations, outposts, flags
fluttering down in the dusk, their golden aegis
went out with the sun, the last gleam on a great crag,
with tiger-eyed turbaned Sikhs, pennons of the Raj
to a sobbing bugle. I see it all come about
again, the tasselled cortege, the clop of the tossing team
with funeral pom-poms, the sergeant major’s shout,
the stamp of boots, then the volley; there is no greater theme
than this chasm-deep surrendering of power
the whited eyes and robes of surrendering hordes,
red tunics, and the great names Sind, Turkistan, Cawnpore,
dust-dervishes and the Saharan silence afterwards.”
The words of Aristide, grounded in a postcolonial optic and anti-colonial rhetoric, as well as in the politico-theological epistemological framework of Third World Liberation Theology, would help me understand the complex rapport between the church and the state, God and politics, and the world of the oppressed and the world of the oppressor. When I went back to school in 2014 to work on a second PhD in Theology and Ethics at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), I decided to write a doctoral dissertation on the moral theology and political theology of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Although he was not actively involved in Haitian politics when I began my research, the ideas and writings of Aristide were still evocative; for many individuals, Aristide was still a symbolic figure in Haitian politics and counter-discourse against imperialism and neoliberalism. He was a representative force about Haiti’s hope and future potential, and ultimately, our anticipated new beginning was still relevant to me and other Haitians.
To bring this essay to an end, after spending three active years researching and writing on the theo-political and democratic ideas of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, I was ready to finish the project and complete the PhD degree. Consequently, in the same year of completion, I signed a book contract with Fortress Press to publish the dissertation in a book form tentatively entitled “Aristide: A Political and Theological Introduction.” Sadly, it has been three years, I never submitted the manuscript to the publisher. About two weeks ago, the senior acquisitions editor contacted me to submit the manuscript. There were two main reasons that prevented me to submit the manuscript: (1) I had other writing obligations to finish and two book contracts to fulfill that were more pressing than the work on Aristide—I supposed; and (2) Honestly, I lost the passion and energy that I was once expressed to finish the work.
After the publisher persuaded me, I now realized that I need to finish this important and much-needed work on one of Haiti’s most complex politicians, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the one who had led me to a great awakening in Haitian politics and Haitian democracy, as well as the promise and force of Liberation theology. Despite of his numerous shortcomings, undemocratic actions, and complex legacy in Haitian politics, for many people, the person and ideas of Jean-Bertrand Aristide symbolically represent a serious challenge to American imperialism and Western hegemony in the Global South, especially in the darker nations in the world. For others, Jean-Bertrand Aristide is still the darling of the Haitian people.