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Haiti’s leader has history of survival

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted for the first time only months after he became the country's first democratically elected leader in 1991.  On Sunday, he fled the country again.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, center, preaches at Saint Jean Bosco church in Petonville, Haiti, on Sept. 26, 1988. He was first elected president in 1990.Jean Max Benjamin / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted for the first time only months after he became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in 1991.

On Sunday, he fled his country again, driven out by a bloody rebellion and appeals from the United States and France to resign for the sake of his impoverished Caribbean nation.

Given Haiti’s history, Aristide could count himself fortunate to have gotten away safely. Among his predecessors, one president was blown up in the National Palace. Another was poisoned. Nine fled. Six were overthrown. One was dismembered by an angry mob.

From priest to politically powerful
Aristide, 50, started out as a Catholic priest in Haiti’s slums. He rose to power on the heels of a 29-year-long family dictatorship led by Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, which shattered the country and left most of its people in fear.

Born to peasants in the southern town of Port Salut, Aristide saw violence at an early age. When he was a toddler, his father was lynched after he was accused of using black magic to commit evil acts.

Roman Catholic priests of the Salesian Order took him in when he was 6, educating him in theology and psychology. He studied in Israel, Canada, Greece and the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

He learned French, Latin, English, German, Spanish and Hebrew, but he was most eloquent in the native Creole that he used to exhort Haitians to rise against the Duvalier family dictatorship. Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country in 1986, and his regime was replaced by a series of interim leaders.

Activist priest
The Salesians disowned Aristide in 1988 for allegedly fomenting revolution through his fiery church sermons aimed at empowering Haiti’s poor masses. At the time, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was at odds with young priests in Latin America who preached that violence to overthrow dictators was justified.

Although he wasn’t with the order, Aristide kept preaching and was criticized by clerics and inciting violence and fueling a class struggle, sometimes divided along racial lines.

Aristide’s activism made him a target. In 1988, thugs backed by the army stormed his Saint Jean Bosco church during Mass and shot and hacked to death 12 parishioners, but Aristide escaped. He has also escaped two other assassination attempts.

Despite opposition from the army, business leaders, landowners and the United States, Aristide became Haiti’s first freely elected leader in 1990, only to be ousted in a military coup eight months later and forced into exile in the United States.

U.S. intervention
The army brutalized and murdered Aristide’s supporters until the United States intervened in 1994. President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 troops to restore Aristide but insisted he respect a constitutional term limit and step down in 1995.

Aristide handpicked his successor, Rene Preval, but was considered the power behind the scenes until he won a second term in 2000, in presidential elections marred by a low turnout and an opposition boycott.

Legislative elections that same year were swept by his Lavalas Family party, but allegations that process was rigged led international donors to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

The elections frayed his credibility and starved his administration of funds it needed to make good on promises to Haiti’s 8 million people, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere who live in grinding poverty.

Aristide also has been accused of human rights violations and of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug-trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs — charges the president denies.

After he became took office, Aristide was relieved of his priestly duties. He is married and has two children.