Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Tumultuous Career

Posted: March 11, 2004, PBS Online News Hour

Deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is no stranger to obstacles and hardships -- his life and political career has been a series of dramatic events.

Aristide's flight from Haiti in late February 2004 amidst a rebel uprising marked the second time he had been driven out of power. The embattled Haitian leader was ousted from office in 1991 after a violent military coup.

Born in 1953 in the Haitian coastal port town of Port-Salut, Aristide moved with his mother and sister to the capital city of Port-au-Prince as a young child. He attended the College Notre Dame in the northern city of Cap-Haitian for his undergraduate studies and then did novitiate studies at a seminary in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

After his time in the Dominican Republic, he pursued a post-graduate degree in philosophy at the State University of Haiti and then traveled to Rome and Israel for two years of biblical study.

Aristide returned to Haiti in 1983 and was ordained a Catholic priest by the Haitian bishop. He was assigned to a poor parish on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

The future Haitian leader quickly gained popularity as a priest, becoming a spokesman for a progressive wing of the Catholic Church and criticizing the ruling regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. His liberation theology encouraged the church to play a role in social problems, such as the plight of Haiti's poor.

According to a profile by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., it is believed that Aristide survived nine attempts on his life during this period, including one where attackers armed with guns and machetes burst into a church where he was giving mass in 1988. He survived the attempt but dozens of churchgoers were killed.

Church leaders disapproved of his activism in political matters and Aristide was expelled from his religious order, the Salesians, in 1988. He left the priesthood entirely in 1994.

Aristide launched a hasty campaign for president in 1990 and won with 67 percent of the vote, becoming Haiti's first democratically elected president. He took office on Feb. 7, 1991.

Despite the election, which was largely considered free and fair by the international community, Aristide's opposition was not satisfied with the outcome. A violent coup, led chiefly by military leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, erupted in September and Aristide was overthrown.

After being driven out of Haiti, Aristide began a three-year exile in the United States.

From October 1991 to September 1994 a de facto military regime governed Haiti outside of its constitutional framework. For his part, Aristide traveled around the world speaking against the violence the ruling regime was using to control the Haitian people and lobbying international governments and organizations for assistance.

Haiti's economy also suffered during this time as many government ministries were not functioning properly and basic supplies grew more and more expensive.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton dispatched 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti to help maintain peace and assist with the restoration of democracy. Aristide returned to his homeland on Oct. 15, 1994.

"When he first returned, he had a serious problem -- how to reconcile his political base and [fulfill] what he promised to do vis-a-vis the economy," University of Virginia professor Robert Fatton Jr. told the Miami Herald of Aristide's return to Haiti.

Due to constitutional limits, Aristide did not run for president in 1995. Rene Preval, a leading member of Aristide's Lavalas Party, was elected Haiti's president.

Aristide took another run for the office in 2000. His campaign, however, was criticized by human rights organizations as utilizing violence and intimidation of voters in the days leading up to the poll.

Armed supporters of the Lavalas Party were accused of numerous human rights violations by groups such as Amnesty International, including attacks against journalists and allegations of forced disappearances.

Aristide went on to win the presidential election although major opposition parties boycotted the poll. He survived an attempted coup in 2001 that left five others dead.

Political unrest from the latest election combined with Haiti's weak economy and high unemployment rates proved a volatile mix -- a rebel uprising in February 2004, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, threatened Aristide's power once again.

As rebel forces moved across the country and toward the capital, Aristide fled his homeland again on Feb. 29 to the Central African Republic.

He married Mildred Trouillot, a Haitian-American lawyer, in 1996. They have two daughters.

-- Compiled by Maureen Hoch, Online NewsHour

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