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Wed, 07.15.1953

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Politician born

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

*Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born on this date in 1953.  He is a former Black priest and politician. 

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born into poverty in Port-Salut, Sud, Haiti.  His father died three months after he was born, and he later moved to Port-au-Prince with his mother. At age five, Aristide started school with priests of the Salesian order. He was educated at the Collège Notre Dame in Cap-Haitian, graduating with honors in 1974. He then took a course of novitiate studies in La Vega, Dominican Republic, before returning to Haiti to study philosophy at the Grand Séminaire Notre Dame and psychology at the State University of Haiti.

After completing his post-graduate studies in 1979, Aristide traveled in Europe, studying in Italy, Greece and in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala at the Cremisan Monastery. He returned to Haiti in 1982 for his ordination as a Salesian priest and was appointed curate of a small parish in Port-au-Prince.  

Between 1957 and 1986, Haiti was ruled by the family dictatorships of François "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The misery endured by Haiti's poor made a deep impression on Aristide himself and he became an outspoken critic of Duvalierism. Nor did he spare the hierarchy of the country's church, since a 1966 Vatican Concordat granted Duvalier one-time power to appoint Haiti's bishops. An exponent of liberation theology, Aristide denounced Duvalier's regime in one of his earliest sermons. This did not go unnoticed by the regime's top echelons. Under pressure, the provincial delegate of the Salesian Order sent Aristide into three years of exile in Montreal. 

By 1985, as popular opposition to Duvalier's regime grew, Aristide was back preaching in Haiti. His Easter Week sermon, "A call to holiness", delivered at the cathedral of Port-au-Prince and later broadcast throughout Haiti, proclaimed: "The path of those Haitians who reject the regime is the path of righteousness and love."  Aristide became a leading figure in the Ti Legliz movement, whose name means "little church" in Kreyòl. In September 1985, he was appointed to St. Jean Bosco church, in a poor neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Struck by the absence of young people in the church, Aristide began to organize youth, sponsoring weekly youth Masses. He founded an orphanage for urban street children in 1986 called Lafanmi Selavi [Family is Life]. Its program sought to be a model of participatory democracy for the children it served. 

As Aristide became a leading voice for the aspirations of Haiti's dispossessed, he inevitably became a target for attack.  He survived at least four assassination attempts. The most widely publicized attempt, the St. Jean Bosco massacre, occurred on September 11, 1988, when over one hundred armed Tontons Macoute wearing red armbands forced their way into St. Jean Bosco as Aristide began Sunday Mass. As army troops and police stood by, the men fired machine guns at the congregation and attacked fleeing parishioners with machetes. Aristide's church was burned to the ground.  Nearly 50 people were reported to have been killed, and 77 were wounded. Aristide survived and went into hiding.  Subsequently, Salesian officials ordered Aristide to leave Haiti, but tens of thousands of Haitians protested, blocking his access to the airport. 

In December 1988, Aristide was expelled from his Salesian order.  A statement prepared by the Salesians called the priest's political activities an "incitement to hatred and violence", out of line with his role as a clergyman.  Aristide appealed the decision, saying: "The crime of which I stand accused is the crime of preaching food for all men and women."  In a January 1988 interview, he said "The solution is revolution, first in the spirit of the Gospel; Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor. My role is to preach and organize...."  A proponent of liberation theology, Aristide was appointed to a Roman Catholic parish in Port-au-Prince in 1982 after completing his studies to become a priest of the Salesian order. He became a focal point for the pro-democracy movement first under Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and then under the military transition regime which followed.  As a priest, he taught liberation theology and, as a president, attempted to normalize Afro Creole culture, including Vodou religion, in Haiti.  President Aristide was briefly president of Haiti, until a September 1991 military coup. He won the Haitian general election between 1990 and 1991, with 67% of the vote. He became Haiti's first democratically elected president.  An attempted coup regime collapsed in 1994 under U.S. pressure and threat of force (Operation Uphold Democracy).  

In 1994, Aristide left the priesthood and married Mildred Trouillot, in January 1996, with whom he had two daughters.  Aristide was then president again from 1994 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2004. However, Aristide was ousted in the 2004 coup d'état after right-wing ex-army paramilitaries invaded the country from across the Dominican border. Aristide and many others have observed the role of the United States in orchestrating the coup against him. Aristide was later forced into exile in the Central African Republic and South Africa. He finally returned to Haiti in 2011 after seven years in exile.  Since Aristide returned to Haiti, he has abstained from political involvement. However, on September 12, 2014, Aristide was ordered under house arrest while under a corruption investigation. Aristide's lawyers and supporters questioned the legality of the judge's order under Haitian law as well as the judge's impartiality.  In late 2016 Aristide, for the first time in many years, returned to electioneering, touring the country to promote Fanmi Lavalas candidates; the election results (decried by his party as illegitimate) returned to power right-wing forces in the country, with only a 20% voter turnout.  

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