Enigmatic Father Aristide Exhibits A Haitian Character Lost in Translation

October 02, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

Nearly 20,000 U.S. soldiers patrol Haiti today in service to various objectives, including the restoration of U.S. prestige, the resumption of democracy and the safe return of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The exiled president and his advisers, capitalizing on the missteps as well as the best intentions of Washington, are managing one of the mightiest and most peaceful takeovers in history, all to be followed by economic aid on the order of $1 billion.

And all despite troubling denunciations heaped on Father Aristide by critics ranging from the Vatican to the Central Intelligence Agency.

As the result of poorly understood information and misinformation, Americans may know little of Father Aristide, a surpassingly charismatic and enigmatic figure. They have heard little of his thought and politics -- save for his famous ode to necklacing -- the practice of hanging gasoline-filled tires around the necks of enemies and igniting what he called little red bonfires in tires.

"A beautiful instrument" that "smells sweet," he called it.

The image is striking, and might well have disqualified him as the beneficiary of such an extraordinary rescue. To be sure, Father Aristide and Haiti, itself, are almost infinitely complex. In place of real understanding, the priest was called a "radical firebrand" by visiting journalists and U.S. diplomats alike. The necklacing speech gave that label the sort of legitimacy his detractors probably wanted.

In coming weeks, no doubt, more will be known of this man.

"He's a very Haitian character," says Amy Wilentz, author of a book that chronicles Father Aristide's rise as the voice of Haiti's poor, the embodiment of that country's struggle. "His real personality gets lost in cultural translation."

She describes him in her book as "a little stick of dynamite," remarking on "the energy of his gestures, his intense focus, his explosive bursts of eloquence, his devastating power."

What he loses in translation, she says, is the power of his speaking. Though he is a linguist, the language of his leadership is Creole. In English, he is not nearly so capable of irony and wit and provocative bombast -- nor would North Americans understand the wordplay so important to his home audiences.

Ms. Wilentz's book, "The Rainy Season, Haiti Since Duvalier," shows the full range of Father Aristide's most thoughtful and sometimes reckless rhetoric. It presents him against the panoply of exploitation, voodoo, corruption and evil that has been the history of a country once called "The Pearl of the Antilles."

Understanding Father Aristide's meaning when he speaks of the marvels of necklacing requires some knowledge of Haiti, of the Haitian military's murderous attacks on government critics, its gratuitous and purposeful intimidation of people -- its armed attacks on churches and polling places -- and the desperation all of that breeds.

When he spoke of necklacing, he had only words with which to combat assault rifles. His language was intentionally provocative, dangerous to him personally -- yet essential, he tells Ms. Wilentz, if the movement were to survive, if people were to see him as an inspired and reliable leader.

Throughout her book, Father Aristide speaks of the agony of his people and a new destiny, one he has tried to shape. He has endured -- some might say invited -- a half-dozen spectacular attempts on his life. Out of it, he emerges as no less a tribune of justice than was the Rev. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Gandhi. The stage is smaller, but the cause is the same -- and the opposition at least as brutal.

In the necklacing speech, he told the military junta in 1987, on behalf of labor union members: "Give us a blank slate [of government officers]. If you do not, then we will keep striking. We will give you blank streets. And if people do not clear the streets, then the streets will run red."

Often, it seemed, the blood would be his. Though Ms. Wilentz says these encounters have left him on the brink of nervous breakdown, he has been resilient, finding ways to use these failed efforts to enhance his stature.

"One thing about all the assassination attempts," Father Aristide said, "is that I survived them. I know that sounds silly or obvious, but think about it this way: Here you have a man everyone is against, the Macoutes [Haiti's secret police], the hierarchy of the church, the government, the army. They go after him, with guns, machetes, stones. What happens? He survives. How do you think this makes people feel? I'll tell you. They think I'm protected. That I can't be hurt.

"That Jesus or the spirits are protecting me. That I am indestructible. This is great protection for me, because it makes a hired killer a little reluctant to take me on. Who wants to have on his hands the blood of someone the spirits protect? Worse, if he comes to kill me, the odds are, he thinks, that I will survive and he will be punished. He thinks a powerful force is keeping me safe."

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