A Savior Short on Miracles

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Amy Wilentz is the author of "Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" and the novel "Martyrs' Crossing." She is at work on a book about the recall and California.

At the end of September, a thug from one of Haiti’s notorious shantytowns was murdered, his body left for the flies, both his eyes shot out by whoever did the deed. By all accounts, Amiot Metayer was not a good man, but the future of Haiti may turn on his assassination.

Death has a way of concentrating the political mind, and in Haiti, as in many countries with deficient institutions, assassination has traditionally proved to be an efficient means for dealing with political problems and difficult choices.

Metayer’s killing is in the grand style, down to the shot-out eyes, signifying perhaps that he had seen too much. That’s the Haitian street interpretation, in any case.


Since Metayer’s mutilated corpse was discovered late last month, the provincial port town of Gonaives has been virtually shut down by Metayer followers, who have burned government buildings and frightened the population. The chant among the rioters and arsonists has been “Down with Aristide!” They are talking about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected president, a man Metayer supported for most of Aristide’s time in office but whom the people now hold responsible for Metayer’s death.

Metayer ran Raboteau, a shantytown in Gonaives, and the back story on him bears telling. More than a year ago, under pressure to reform, the Aristide government somewhat reluctantly imprisoned Metayer for committing violent political crimes against Aristide’s opposition -- arson among them. In August 2002, he was freed from jail when a tractor driven by his supporters broke down a wall of the penitentiary in Gonaives. (Incidentally, 159 other prisoners also escaped.) In the wake of the prison break, Metayer was seen shouting anti-Aristide slogans, and it was said he boasted that he had much to reveal about Aristide. Now that he’s dead, his supporters have taken up the cry.

It’s unnerving to hear this particular demographic group speak out against Aristide, because it was with support from places like Raboteau that the Duvalier dynasty was destroyed in 1986, and that Aristide first came to power in December 1990. The shantytowns were the steamroller of his support, and slum dwellers could be summoned into the streets at a moment’s notice on his behalf. Back then, these people would have faced death for Aristide.

That was when they still believed he could remake Haiti.

Now time has passed, and time is a fine tool with which to examine the sincerity and ability of a leader. By just the pure fact of his election, Aristide had achieved an incredible thing for Haiti: democratic leadership of a country with no democratic institutions. Everyone thought it was the beginning of a new era for the poverty-stricken place. The international community hailed Aristide as Haiti’s savior.

But as they often do, history and character interceded to halt the onward rush to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. For decades -- and, one could easily argue, centuries -- before Aristide, Haiti had been a kleptocracy run by a ruling class that pilfered and exploited every resource, human and otherwise, with which it came into contact. In the 1980s, Jean-Claude Duvalier represented that class very ably, with his fast cars and his bejeweled, chain-smoking, silky-haired wife. While Duvalier threw lavish parties and cavorted with friends at his beach house or his mountain estate, Aristide was preaching from his shantytown church. What Aristide did best was talk, and his eloquent, impassioned sermons were instrumental in rousing the people from torpor into political indignation. Gonaives, as usual, exploded first; Duvalier fled (along with the wife and suitcases full of money); and eventually Aristide -- a small nobody, a parish priest from the provinces -- came to power.

But it now seems it was asking too much of him to rise to such a historic occasion. Few could, and although he appeared to be as one with his people and able in some mythic way to translate their hopes into reality, guess what? When it came down to reality, as it inevitably does after an election, he was not able to deliver. Nor was he constitutionally fitted for democracy: His friends and foes alike watched unhappily as he shunned compromise, walked away from amicable counsel and carried on as if he, too, had bought into the myth of his own invincible political powers.


Despite Aristide’s promise to bring the people better living conditions, a Herculean task in Haiti but seemingly possible, the slums sank further and further into misery and depravity. Before his presidency, the Haitian shantytowns were indecent, rife with disease and starvation and unemployment. They still are: But now there are also crime and drugs and terrible, powerful gangs. Metayer’s gang, for example, is called the Cannibal Army. The lower a slum sinks into the mire of misery, the more easily its political clout (which is the clout of public violence and unrest) can be bought (witness the warm relationship in Colombia between the drug cartels and the shantytowns). Of course, Aristide cannot be blamed for the “modernization” of the Haitian shantytown, and the cutoff in recent years of U.S. aid has helped accelerate the decline. Still, his inability to better the standard of living there is at least partially to blame for the current unrest.

No matter who killed Metayer, what matters now is the depth of the Haitian people’s discontent. It’s hard to be a savior if you don’t know how, and Aristide is no Mandela. The sad fact is that a man who was once hailed as the people’s hope has failed the people of Haiti. You can summon up excuses for him: From the start of his regime, Aristide has been beset on all sides by foreign powers, especially the U.S., attempting to control and moderate and curb his policies through draconian economic means, such as cutting off aid.

It is also true, however, that Aristide permitted and then upheld an invalid legislative election that gave his party an overwhelming mandate to run the country, but that also destroyed any hope there was of compromise between his people and the wealthy Haitians who influence American politicians and control a good portion of Haiti’s economy. In addition, he foolishly alienated all the intellectuals and artists and do-gooders who had supported him in his time of need.

Far worse things are true: His government has repeatedly failed to apprehend perpetrators of the grossest human rights abuses, including assassinations of his former allies and friends and of journalists of all stripes. More repugnant, a man who embodied the movement against Duvalier and his Tontons Macoute, or secret police, now has numerous secret armed militias working on his behalf and spreading terror among the opposition.

No matter who killed Metayer, Aristide has been a bitter disappointment. He is, however, a master manipulator and a talented political contortionist.

But with Gonaives on the march again, his grip on the country is undeniably loosening. Power is still his; what he does with it now will determine how long -- and in what guise -- he remains on the Haitian political scene.