September 25, 2007

Nowhere was Aristide's popularity and skill as an orator more evident than when he opened the gates of the white-washed national palace in Port-au-Prince forevents that had the aura of a rock concert or a fundamentalist revival meeting. One such occasion, a celebration mark- ing International Women's Day last March 8, started hours before the president's mid-day speech. Thousands of peasant women wearing plastic sandals, baggy dresses and brightly colored headscarfs swarmed past the palace's iron gates to gather on the manicured lawn of the for- biddingly elegant presidential mansion, a relic of the 19-year-long U.S. occupation that many Haitians fear and despise as a symbol of the ruthless Duvalier dictator- ship. Jammed together on this lawn nearly the size of two football fields, the crowd sang songs and joked while they waited for Aristide, the first liberation theologian ever to lead a nation, to speak from the palace's front steps. Some carried signs saying "Aristide will not be toppled like Allende"; others used the occasion to roam the grounds selling cups of water and cheap imported trinkets. As the afternoon heated up, hundreds pushed and shoved their way to the front and a sultry pandemonium ensued. The heat near the palace steps was suffocat- ing; at least 10 people passed out from exposure. Streams of letters to the presi- dent-filled with praise for Aristide and requests for jobs and medicine-were passed around and when a mail sack was sent out, dozens lunged for it, a fight erupted and the bag was torn to bits. When the president reached the mi- crophone, the audience surged forward, nearly engulfing him. Despite three assas- sination attempts against him including a 1988 machete and pistol attack on his Port-au-Prince parish that left 13 dead, Aristide seemed unfazed by the surround- ing chaos. He folded his hands, looked at the ground, and silently gathered his thoughts. The sleepy-eyed Aristide, 38, is a wisp of a man. He stands about 5'5" and weighs about 135 pounds. His forearms are so thin that during an interview in 1990, his watchband kept sliding off his wrist and would hang near the palm of his hand. In small groups, he speaks in a quiet, soft voice and appears unassuming, but when he addresses an audience-from a pulpit or wearing the presidential sash-he be- comes a very big man. To calm the crowd that afternoon, a presidential aide began to sing the na- tional anthem, something the Roman Catholic priest-turned-president had of- ten done to end his fiery sermons. The throng, many of whom consider Aristide a prophet, joined in. At the anthem's conclusion, the crowd moved back and the president began to speak. For twenty minutes Aristide spoke with a calm elegance. Then he led the chants Haitians first heard at his church and later, after his 1988 expulsion from the Salesian Order for preaching political evangelism,on the radio where hecontin- ued to speak as Haiti's militant social conscience. "Are some people still under the table?" he asked the crowd. "Yes," they cheered. "Are some people sitting at the table?" "Yes!" "Would you like all of us to sit at the table like brothers and sisters? Would you like to sit at the table? As days go by, we will succeed in sitting around the table." Aristide concluded by chanting along with his audience: "Alone we are weak. Together we are strong. Together, to- gether, we are lavalas." Lavalas, a Creole word, is the name of Aristide's political organization and is another metaphor: when heavy rains fall in the mountains, lavalas are the flow that becomes a river and washes filth into the sea, leaving the country clean.

Tags: Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, populism, Politics

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