Jean-Bertrand Aristide Biography

July 15, 1953 Port-Salut, Haiti

Political leader, priest

AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Aristide, Jean-Bertrand.
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti, has had a political history as troubled as that of his country. At one time the priest-turned-politician was considered to be the savior of Haiti's poorest citizens. By 2004 many people felt that, despite his good intentions, Aristide had become a corrupt leader who was no longer capable of running his country. Aristide has twice served as president of Haiti. In 1991, less than a year after becoming the country's first democratically elected president, he was overthrown by opposition groups. He was again elected president in 2000, but in February of 2004 he left office amid controversy. U.S. officials claimed that Aristide had resigned; the ousted president has insisted that he was forced to resign. While in exile in the Central African Republic, Aristide stated that he believed he was still the legal and true president of Haiti. He told Amy Goodman on the Znet Web site, "[The people of Haiti] are still fighting in a peaceful way for their elected President. I cannot betray them."

Titide, the political priest

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born on July 15, 1953, in the fishing village of Port-Salut, Haiti, to parents who were farmers. The occupation of his parents was not uncommon, since the majority of Haitians make a small living by farming. The unique thing was that Joseph and Marie Solanges Aristide, although poor, were educated. According to statistics released by the United Nations (UN) in 2000, fifty percent of the people in Haiti cannot read or write. Joseph died when Jean-Bertrand was only three months old. Marie Solanges then packed up her young son and his older sister and moved to Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where her children would have a better chance of receiving an education. An education, she knew, would help them rise out of poverty.

When he was six years old Aristide began studying at a primary school run by the Society of St. Francis de Sales, an order of Roman Catholic priests known as the Salesians. The main mission of the Salesians is to serve the poor. Aristide proved to be an exceptional student. In 1974 he earned a bachelor's degree from the College Notre Dame in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. He then traveled to the Dominican Republic to study for the priesthood at the Salesian Seminary. Aristide then returned to Haiti, where he studied philosophy at the Grand Seminaire Notre Dame and psychology at the State University of Haiti. He also studied in Rome, Israel, and at the University of Montreal in Canada. As a result of his travels, Aristide learned to speak six languages (Spanish, English, Hebrew, Italian, German, and Portuguese), in addition to Creole, the native language of Haiti, and French, the official language of the country. He also studied music and learned to play several instruments, including guitar, piano, and saxophone.

"In order for peace to reign, one must speak the truth."

After he became a priest in 1983, Aristide was assigned to a small parish just outside Port-au-Prince called St. Joseph. He was soon transferred to St. Jean Bosco, a larger parish in the heart of the Port-au-Prince slums. Aristide quickly earned a reputation as a champion of the poor. He spent countless hours working at orphanages and youth centers in the poorest and roughest neighborhoods of the capital city. He was also known as a fiery speaker who used the pulpit to spread his political message. Although small in size (he is only five-foot four inches tall), his words were powerful. Aristide, lovingly nicknamed "Titide" (Tiny Aristide) by his followers, spoke out against the military government that had oppressed the Haitian people for most of the twentieth century.

Snapshot: History of Haiti

Haiti is a tiny country located to the south of the United States, in the Caribbean Sea. It occupies the western portion of the island of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern portion. Haiti is small, about the size of Maryland, but it is densely populated. About 95 percent of the people who live there are black; they are descendants of the African slaves who worked on the French sugar plantations early in Haiti's history.

In 1492, during his exploration of the Americas, Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Hispaniola and established a Spanish settlement near the present city of Cap-Haitien. By the 1500s, more and more Spanish planters were drawn to the region and slaves from Africa were imported to work the large plantations. In 1697 Spain ceded, or transferred, the western third of the island (now Haiti) to the French. Under French rule, Haiti became one of the wealthiest communities in the Caribbean, and one of the largest producers of sugar and coffee.

By the late 1700s nearly half a million black slaves were living in Haiti. Although they comprised the majority of the population, they were at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy. The political power was concentrated in the hands of mulattos (people of mixed black and white background) and light-skinned descendants of French landowners. This created a tension between the various groups, which simmered throughout Haiti's history. From 1791 through 1803 the country was rocked by a slave rebellion, led by General Toussaint L'Ouverture (c. 1743–1803), a free slave who had risen in the ranks of the French army. By 1801 General L'Ouverture controlled the entire island. That same year he established a constitution that abolished slavery. In 1804 former slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806) declared Haiti an independent state, free from France's rule. Dessalines called himself emperor and seized all white-owned land.

The remainder of the nineteenth century was marked by frequent and often violent shifts in political power, with twenty-two changes of government between 1843 and 1915. In 1915, because there seemed no end to the constant conflict, the United States stepped in and occupied Haiti until 1934. Following the departure of U.S. troops, the country endured a succession of leaders. One of them was Dumarsais Estime, the first black president of the republic, who took office in 1946. Two subsequent regimes were overthrown, and six held power, before François Duvalier was elected president in 1957. In 1964, Duvalier proclaimed himself president for life. When he died in 1971, he was succeeded by his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, during services at St. Jean Bosco Church, Haiti, in 1988. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, during services at St. Jean Bosco Church, Haiti, in 1988.
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Takes on the Tontons

In particular, Aristide denounced the Duvaliers, a family of Haitians who had been in power since the late 1950s. Until the family was overthrown in 1986, both François "Papa Doc" Duvalier (1907–1971) and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" (1951–), ruled the country through military might. "Papa Doc" created a private army, known as the Tontons Macoutes, whose sole purpose was to rid the country of all opposition. Anyone suspected of opposing the Duvaliers was bullied, kidnapped, or murdered. The army also swept the streets, robbing and killing at random. The people of Haiti lived in constant terror. The majority of them also lived in squalor, since the Duvaliers and their followers, who made up about ten percent of the population, controlled all the wealth.

The Duvaliers, and the military governments that came after them, felt threatened by Aristide. He was a charismatic man, whose kind heart was apparent to the hundreds of people who crowded his church services. He was also being heard across the country, since his sermons were broadcast on the Roman Catholic station, Radio Soleil. As a result, the number of Aristide's followers was growing by the thousands. In addition, Aristide's sermons were starting to become more radical, as he called for the masses to rise up and claim their rights. Although the tiny priest did not condone violence as a means for change, he did not discourage it, either. As a matter of fact, Aristide was known for quoting a certain passage from the Bible: "And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one" (Luke 22: 36).

The military rulers demanded that the Catholic Church stop Aristide from stirring up the Haitian people. When church leaders were unable to do so, the Tontons stepped in. Several attempts were made on Aristide's life, and on September 11, 1988, his church was attacked while he was saying mass. More than a dozen people were killed, over seventy were seriously wounded, and St. Jean Bosco was burned to the ground. Two weeks later, Aristide was expelled from the Salesian Order and the Vatican (the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome) ordered him to transfer out of Haiti.

Following the attacks, Aristide's followers became more loyal than ever. They viewed him as a true holy man, a prophet who would lead them out of their misery. And because he had escaped death over and over, they called him "Mister Miracles." When news got out that Aristide was going to be transferred, tens of thousands of Haitians stormed the streets in what would become the largest demonstration in Haiti's history. They physically blocked access to the airport, forcing Aristide to remain in the country. Aristide stayed and continued to help the poor, even though he had no official church. He helped create a medical center, ran a halfway house for young runaways, and established workshops so that people could become skilled craftsmen.

First presidency: 1991

By the end of the 1980s the military force in Haiti had escalated out of control. World peacekeeping organizations such as the UN and the Organization of American States finally stepped in and demanded that a free election take place. At first Aristide was reluctant to become a presidential candidate. His followers, fearful that the Tontons would take control, begged him to run. On October 18, 1990, Aristide entered the race and called his campaign the Lavalas (cleansing flood). A record number of Haitians flocked to the polls, eager to vote in the country's first free election. Aristide won by a landslide, taking almost 68 percent of the popular vote. Aristide supporters danced in the streets, sure that their nightmare was over. Aristide's opposition, composed of the wealthy and the military, viewed him as a threat to their way of life.

Aristide took office on February 7, 1991, determined to focus on social reform. One of his goals was to launch a national literacy program so that even the poorest Haitians could learn how to support themselves. He was also determined to purge the government of corrupt officials from former administrations. Many leaders were asked to retire; some army officers, judges, and police suspected of past violence were jailed. There was an uneasy peace in Haiti, but it did not last long.

It soon became obvious that Aristide, suspicious of the past, could not work with opposition leaders who remained in office. In addition, he formed his own personal army of street gangs who were encouraged to avenge past wrongs. Such eye-for-an-eye justice disturbed many outside of Haiti. The country's military opposition resurfaced, and on September 30, 1991, just seven months into his term, Aristide was overthrown by Raoul Cedras (1950–), a general in the Haitian military.

The Tontons Macoutes was re-formed as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, and Cedras launched a new reign of terror. Anyone aligned with Aristide was silenced, which resulted in public executions and widespread torture. Aristide, who had fled to Venezuela and then to the United States, pleaded with world leaders for help. International peacekeeping groups, including the UN and the United States, responded. For almost three years they exerted pressure, both economic and military, to reinstate Aristide. Over and over again their efforts stalled. In September of 1994, more than twenty thousand U.S. troops were sent to Haiti to face the Cedras regime, and a month later Aristide was finally allowed to return to his country and serve out the remainder of his term. According to the constitution of Haiti, a president's term lasts five years.

When Aristide's term ended in February of 1996, he was not allowed to run again, since the constitution of Haiti does not allow for consecutive terms. Aristide was succeeded by Réné Préval, an ally of Aristide and his prime minister since 1991.

Second presidency: 2001

In 1994 Aristide resigned from the priesthood. Not because he had lost his faith, he explained to Patrick Samway in America, but "because it gave me the free space in which to work." In 1996 he married Mildred Trouillot, a lawyer who had served as an adviser to Aristide's government. After leaving office and resigning from the priesthood, Aristide continued to fight for the underprivileged, in Haiti as well as around the world. For example, he founded the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, an organization that worked to find solutions to problems facing developing nations.

Aristide also began work on a campaign to become the president of Haiti for a second time. In late 1996 he formed a new political party, the Fanmi Lavalas (FL), or the Lavalas Family Party. The FL swept the Senate elections in May of 2000. Haiti's legislative body, like the U.S. Congress, is divided into two houses: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Parties who opposed Aristide merged to form the Convergence Democratique (CD) and claimed that the elections were fixed. The CD boycotted the November of 2000 presidential elections, and when Aristide walked away with almost 92 percent of the popular vote, they cried foul. Since Aristide had run virtually unopposed, they did not accept him as the true president. When Aristide took over the presidency on February 7, 2001, the CD named Gerard Gourgue as the head of its own government.

The Haiti that Aristide inherited in 2001 was utterly in ruins. The unemployment rate was at an all-time high, roads were impassable, education and health care were in short supply, and drug trafficking was widespread. Once considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti had become one of the poorest countries in the world. Aristide promised to create jobs and to provide basic necessities, including safe housing and access to clean water. Because of constant conflict with the CD, however, Aristide had little time to make good on his campaign slogan of "Peace in the mind, peace in the belly."

In December of 2001, opposition forces attempted to overthrow Aristide. Aristide supporters responded by setting fire to CD headquarters. The result was a continuing battle between political forces. As a result Haiti continued its downward spiral, and by 2003 the country was in worse shape than ever. In April the UN declared Haiti to be in a state of emergency. According to UN reports, 56 percent of Haitians suffered from malnutrition and only 46 percent had access to clean drinking water.

End of the Aristide era

By the end of 2003 many groups in Haiti, including labor unions and human rights organizations, were calling for Aristide to resign. Even some of his most loyal supporters felt betrayed. In February of 2004 a rebel group calling itself the Revolutionary Artibonite Resistance Front seized Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest city. The group was led by Guy Philippe, a former police chief. By late February the rebels controlled Haiti's second largest city, Cap-Haitien, which caused Haiti to be split directly in half, with Aristide in control in the south and rebel groups controlling the north.

Aristide's security forces, known as the chimeres, battled the rebel army, but they also clashed with any group that opposed the president. They attacked student protesters with machetes, pistols, and rocks, and roamed the streets looting stores, burning cars, and sometimes killing innocent people. Hundreds of Haitians were killed or wounded in the crossfire.

During peace negotiations that ensued, the rebel leaders would accept nothing but Aristide's resignation. Aristide held fast and refused to step down until the end of his term in 2006. By late February, the international community was again poised to intervene. In a February 27, 2004, address reported on the CNN Web site, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (1937–) made a plea: "I know Aristide has the interest of the Haitian people at heart. I hope that he will examine [the decision to resign] carefully considering the interests of the Haitian people."

On February 29, 2004, Aristide reportedly took the plea to heart. In the early hours of the morning he signed documents to officially resign, and then boarded a plane and flew to the Central African Republic. At first the press reported that Aristide had resigned of his own free will, but Aristide began to give interviews that suggested otherwise. According to Steve Miller and Joseph Curl of the Washington Times, the president-in-exile accused the United States of kidnapping him. In an interview with the Associated Press and CNN, Aristide declared, "[My captors] were not Haitian forces. They were ... Americans and Haitians together, acting to surround the airport, my house, the palace. Agents were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting and killing in a matter of time."

U.S. officials denied the accusations. In the same Washington Times article, Secretary of State Powell responded that "Mr. Aristide was not kidnapped. We did not force him on the airplane. He went on the plane willingly.... It was Mr. Aristide's decision to resign." In interview after interview, Aristide insisted that he was forced out of his country. He also insisted that he was not a man of violence, but a man of peace. In a March 8, 2004, interview on the CNN Web site, he commented, "Before the elections of the year 2000, which led me for the second time to the National Palace in Haiti, I had talked about peace. And throughout in the National Palace, throughout my tenure, I talked about peace. And today I continue to talk about peace."

Nowhere to go

In 2004, however, Haiti was not a peaceful country. By April, nearly four thousand troops from the United States, Canada, France, and Chile were stationed there trying to keep the peace. It was hoped that elections would result in a new democratic government, but considering the country's history, the outlook was grim. One thing was certain: Aristide would not be returning home. As provisional president Boniface Alexandre commented to Robert Novak of CNN, "He cannot come back to Haiti."

In March of 2004 Aristide received temporary asylum in Jamaica, and in June he and his family took up residence in South Africa. Many in South Africa were not eager to accept him, but government officials agreed to open its doors, seeing the situation as a temporary one. In a press conference on May 31, as quoted on, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad welcomed the ousted president, saying, "President Aristide, his family and aides will remain in the country until the situation in Haiti has stabilized to the extent that they can return."

For More Information


"Jean-Bertrand Aristide." Contemporary Black Biography. Volume 6. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 1994.

"Jean-Bertrand Aristide." Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

"Haiti." Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, 10th ed., 6 vols. Gale Group, 2001.


Padgett, Tim, and Kathie Klarreich. "One More Show of Force: The U.S. Military Returns to Haiti to Try to Stop the Violence." Time (March 15, 2004).

Samway, Patrick H. "Rebuilding Haiti: An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide." America (February 15, 1997): p. 12.

Samway, Patrick H. "When Mayhem is the Rule." Time (March 8, 2004).

Web Sites

Bowman, Jo. "Aristide Begins Asylum in South Africa." South Africa. (June 2, 2004) (accessed on June 9, 2004).

Goodman, Amy. "Goodman Interviews Aristide." ZNet (March 8, 2004). (accessed May 4, 2004).

Koinange, Jeff, Lucia Newman, and Barbara Starr. "Aristide Appeals for Peace in Haiti." CNN (March 8, 2004). (accessed on May 5, 2004).

Miller, Steve, and Joseph Curl. "Aristide Accuses U.S. of Forcing His Ouster." Washington Times (March 2, 2004). (accessed on May 5, 2004).

Newman, Lucia, John King, and John Zarrella. "Powell to Aristide: Do What's Best for Haitian People." CNN (February 27, 2004). (accessed on May 5, 2004).

Novak, Robert. "Haiti after Aristide." CNN (March 25, 2004). (accessed on May 5, 2004).

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