“If you ask someone in the elite class or the non-nationalist middle class questions about (Aristide) they will sell you him as the root of all our problems. During his presidency, things were better.”
By Sam Bojarski
In 2004, as Haiti was celebrating its 200-year anniversary as a free republic, a band of rag-tag soldiers from the disbanded army approached Port-au-Prince with a mission to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The president would be whisked away by American officials on a private plane, first to the Central African Republic and eventually to South Africa right before the coup forces arrived in the capital.
It would be the second time that the former Catholic priest and proponent of liberation theology-turned politician got ousted from power. He was also forced into exile in 1991 after a bloody military coup eight months into his first term.
“Aristide had not managed to attack the real economic problems of the country,” said Enomy Germain, an economist who works as a professor at the Center for Planning and Applied Economics in Port-au-Prince. He failed to provide enough real solutions and instead exacerbated class tensions, Germain added.
Aristide did champion several key initiatives, but his efforts to build more schools, for instance, were ultimately “too weak” to help him remain in power. “He explained to poor people that rich men concentrate all resources for (themselves),” Germain also said. Eventually, he continued, this rhetoric incited the economic elite class to overthrow Aristide.
Although his approach to governing was often divisive, Aristide remains a popular figure in Haiti today. He is particularly beloved in poorer areas like Cite Soleil and La Saline, according to Kerventz Sylus, who teaches English and Spanish language at a school called Mijep, in Thomassin.
Aristide’s presidency remains marred in controversy, over allegations of close ties with drug traffickers and inciting his supporters to violence. But almost nine years after his return from exile in South Africa, some people still see a need to address the issues Aristide and his Lavalas party attempted to resolve, albeit with mixed results.
The politics of Lavalas
Brian Concannon, executive director at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), emphasized the efforts of Aristide’s Lavalas administration to improve education and health care.
“They built more secondary schools under Aristide’s administration than had been built in the history of Haiti,” Concannon said.
According to a report called “We Will Not Forget,” published by the Haiti Action Committee, the Lavalas administrations of Aristide and Rene Preval built 195 new primary schools and 104 public high schools between 1994 and 2000. More schools were created in this time period than between 1804 and 1994. Public schools remained a minority, but the Lavalas government gave children scholarships to attend private schools and provided subsidies for books and uniforms.
Concannon pointed out that primary school participation has increased significantly since the mid-1990s. A 2014 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed that primary school enrollment rates grew from 47 percent in 1993 to 88 percent by 2011.
Aristide’s government also oversaw the opening of a medical school in Tabarre and focused on enhancing public health facilities. In 2002, the maternity wards of eight public hospitals were renovated, according to “We Will Not Forget.”
Investment in public health has declined since Aristide left office. The World Bank has reported that Haiti’s public investment in health care dropped from 16.6 percent in 2004 to just 4.4 percent in 2016.
“There are enough hospitals, but I think Haiti needs public hospitals … we’ve got a lot of private,” said Sylus. But Germain said that in order for Haiti to develop, education must be improved.
“Haitian education is not competitive in the Caribbean region, and the net schooling rate is only 57 percent; so a lot of (students) don’t have access to school. So, education is a great challenge in the country,” Germain said in a written statement. Costs for both the public sector and the individual are relatively high, he added.
“You see a lot of children on the streets, they can’t go to school. That’s because schools are expensive in Haiti, that’s because the private sector has the school,” said Sylus.
Rodney Leveille, who runs a small children’s home called Home for Love, said the educational policies of Lavalas are “more than needed” right now. “It’s very impossible right now to pay for education, pay for whatever you want, you have to struggle,” he said.
Underlying these struggles is a sharp increase in food prices since the early 2000s. In 2003, it only took 240 to 300 gourdes to buy nine cans of rice, said Jimmy Pierre, who runs a school in Kenscoff called The Successful Institute. “But now in 2019, we can’t even buy a can with 300 gourdes,” Pierre added.
In December of 2003, 40 gourdes was worth about one U.S. dollar. Since then, the gourde has lost over 100 percent of its value relative to the dollar, and the exchange rate as of mid-March was 83-to-1. But the unstable price of foods like rice did not begin during Aristide’s presidency.
By the mid-1990s, imported “Miami rice” had nearly monopolized Haitian markets, a consequence of low tariffs passed in the late 1980s at the behest of institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 1994, when Aristide returned to finish his first term, rice imports from the U.S. accounted for 80 percent of domestic consumption, to the detriment of Haiti’s agricultural sector, Leslie Mullin of the Haiti Action Committee has reported.
Although Aristide’s government did attempt to assist Haitian farmers, most efforts were aimed at stabilizing food prices. From 2001-2004, the government partnered with religious groups and grassroots organizations to create roughly 200 community stores. These stores received a line of credit from the government to purchase rice and other foods in bulk. The food was then re-sold at an affordable price, said Laura Flynn, who served as an assistant to President Aristide from 1994-1996. The price of rice doubled immediately after the coup, the New York Times reported in June 2004.
A mixed legacy
Despite his efforts to stabilize food prices and improve public health and education, critics have blamed Aristide for the violence perpetrated by his supporters.
Leveille specifically mentioned Lafanmi Selavi, a center for street children the former president founded in 1986. Young adults formerly associated with the center have violently targeted Aristide’s political opposition, he said.
“When the Haitians started to know that … 50 percent of the nation stood against him,” Leveille said of Aristide.
In places like Cite Soleil, Selavi alumni joined pro-Lavalas militias that opposed the 2004 coup, Peter Hallward reported in his article “Repression and resistance in Haiti, 2004-2006.” On multiple occasions since the coup, pro-Aristide groups have been accused of attacking demonstrations against the former leader.
Leveille also said Aristide refused to arrest drug traffickers, and U.S. authorities have questioned Aristide’s personal involvement in trafficking operations.
For more than 10 years after his ouster, a grand jury investigated allegations that Aristide and top aides accepted bribes from drug traffickers. People connected to Aristide were convicted in the probe.
Concannon said that questions about whether Aristide was personally involved in drug trafficking and corruption are legitimate. But he said corruption is “endemic” in Haiti and that allegations against Aristide have not been proven.
According to Pierre, Aristide’s main critics cast the former president in an unfair light and do not acknowledge Haiti’s underlying problems. He placed responsibility for these problems on the Haitian elite that routinely seeks to discredit Aristide.
The country’s reliance on imported food, deepened by low tariffs on rice, has discouraged farmers and given market control “to a little group of people” that now control prices. Haiti’s economic difficulties only grew worse after Aristide left office, he noted.
In 2018, the market price of imported rice increased by over 24 percent year-on-year, according to a Consumer Price Index for 2017-2018. Rising food prices, among other problems, have fueled Haiti’s recent political unrest.
“If you ask someone in the elite class or the non-nationalist middle class questions about (Aristide) they will sell you him as the root of all our problems. During his presidency, things were better,” Pierre said.