By Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Translated, edited and introduced by Amy Wilentz
ORBIS BOOKS, 1990
Maryknoll, NY, 10545
REVIEW by Bob Corbett
"...I live in Haiti. Haiti is the parish of the poor. In Haiti, it is not enough to heal wounds, for every day another wound opens up. It is not enough to give the poor food one day, to buy them antibiotics one day, to teach them to read a few sentences or to write a few words including their name. Hypocrisy. The next day they will be starving again, feverish again, and they will never be able to buy the books that hold the words that might deliver them. Beans and rice are hypocrisy when the pastor gives them only to a chosen few among his own flock, and thousands and thousands of others starve. Oh yes, perhaps that night, the pastor can sleep better, thinking, "Ti Claude's eyes looked brighter today; I do believe he is growing." Perhaps that will put the pastor's mind at rest. Hypocrisy. Because for every Ti Claude or Ti Bob or Ti Marie to whom the pastor gives his generous bowl of rice and beans, there are a hundred thousand more Ti Claudes, Bobs and Maries, sitting on bony haunches in the dust, chewing on the pit of a mango, finishing their meal for the day. I have seen them, I have seen the children the good pastor never feeds." (p. 74)
This passage reflects Father Aristide's central thesis: systemic change must come to Haiti. The Duvalierists must go and Haitians must, at long last, achieve the control which their "freedom" of 1804 never gave. Aristide is writing to his brothers and sisters of the Caribbean, Central and South America. He is writing to others already in the movement of liberation theology. He knows that they know the basic story of suffering, oppression and domination by the elite of one's own nation, by the United States and its international corporations, and even the Roman Catholic Church. Aristide's message is that Haiti is not only there with them, but that liberation theology is in the forefront of Haiti's battle for true freedom.
His fiery poetic message is that struggle for systemic change must continue and intensify. At times he even sees the culmination of the struggle to be an inevitable violence:
"The rich of my country, a tiny percentage of our population, sit at a vast table covered in white damask and overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen and countrywomen are crowded under that table, hunched over in the dirt and starving. It is a violent situation, and one day the people under that table will rise up in righteousness, and knock the table of privilege over, and take what we have all been working for for all these years in the parishes of the poor." (p. 23).
Aristide's tirade condemns three sources of suffering in Haiti--the Duvalierist system of government which is still in place today, the United States government's policies and U.S. based international corporations and the Vatican's policies. The critique of the first two are a familiar theme in Haitian literature, but Aristide's scathing critique of his own church is less often heard.
"His [the pope] job is to ensure efficiency, continuity, and profit, while maintaining the status quo within the company. I think this is a fair job description for the man who lives in Rome, and I am not the only one who thinks so. Yet he and his colleagues have a secret weapon that no other corporate officers can boast; United Fruit never had this weapon, nor did Gulf + Western or the National City Bank. That weapon is belief, the long-established belief of the people--the final consumer--in the word of the Church. The man in Rome and his colleagues are able to wrap company policy up in the proud yellow and white of the Church, they can pronounce and prettify efficiency actions using the beautiful words of the Bible: they can dress up their officers and parade them around the church as men of God. They can take the policies of United Fruit, Gulf + Western and the National City Bank, all multinational corporations like the Church--with the same policies, and call that package truth.
But caveat emptor! Will the people buy that package? Not any longer. The various struggles of the world's poor for economic and political liberation, combined with the establishment of an indigenous clergy and involved lay people (the Little Church--you, my brothers and sisters!), have made the people wary of the yellow and white package."
Aristide's is a moving critique. In attacking the abuses of the Haitian government he gives names, dates and stories from his own experience; attempts on his own life. However, his attack on the U.S., the international economic order and the Catholic Church is more general; an angry, anguished lashing out at a vaguely seen enemy. He pulls strongly at our hearts but does little to provide a solid analysis of the evils and complicity he alleges.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Aristide's message is his solution, or lack of one. He has grand hopes that the progressive Catholic Church, the 'ti legliz,' the small base communities, can be a central factor is the restructuring of Haiti. But he offers little concrete advice or description of how the ti legliz will achieve this miracle of change which has eluded Haiti the past 500 years. In a radio broadcast in 1988 he echoes his hopes:
"Alone we are weak.
Together we are strong.
Together, we are the flood."
Does Aristide really believe this flood of population is about to drown the ancient system of oppression in Haiti? Or is Aristide trying to create this flood with his own powerful rhetoric? Probably a little of each. He is sincere, a masterful molder of peoples' passions. Yet I doubt that he's created much which is lasting or powerful in modern Haiti.
This first volume of Aristide's writings is mainly a long essay "A Letter To My Brothers and Sisters." It is addressed to others within the movement of liberation theology in the Third World of the Americas. This 60 page essay is supplemented by the texts of two sermons and three radio speeches. Aristide wants to tell Haiti's story, to let his brothers and sisters know that Haiti, too, is in the same struggle for independence for which they labor.
Unfortunately Haiti's struggle is, for Aristide, his own biography, his own struggle. This points to a great weakness of his leadership --its centeredness in and on Aristide, himself. His unwillingness or inability to make links with other progressive leaders in Haiti weakens his own contribution. Nonetheless, he is a strong and important voice in modern Haiti. Stripped of his parish, and his priestly faculties, prohibited by constant violence from carrying on his fight in Haiti, this book will be his strongest current message to his followers. The fact that it will appear first in English, not his native Creole, is symptomatic that today Aristide speaks more to foreigners and through the foreign press than he does in Haiti.
The progressive church is an important factor in Haiti's current struggle. The ti legliz movement, especially in the rural areas where Aristide's influence is weakest, continues to be an important part of progressive resistance. Aristide's impassioned critique is a welcomed addition to the slim literature of modern Haiti available in English. Any reader concerned with this struggle needs to hear his version of it. Hopefully this volume will be a stimulus to other authors to explore the larger place of the ti legliz movement in Haiti's current battle against Duvalierism, and the struggle toward personal freedom and democratic participation in national life. The Catholic Church's left wing is in the forefront of today's struggle. Aristide is one part of that movement, not its totality, nor even its center. We must be hopeful that the whole story will soon be told.
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