Jean-Bertrand Aristide was Haiti’s first democratically elected president, and most certainly, one of its most controversial leaders. Born 15 July 1953 in Douyon, Haiti, he was orphaned at an early age and raised in the care of the Salesian Order, an order of the Roman Catholic Church. He received an excellent education, attending parochial schools, then seminary. He was schooled in Israel, Britain, Canada and Egypt, and earned his graduate degree in psychology from the University of Montreal. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is known as a skilled orator, fluent in eight languages, including his native Creole, Portuguese, German, Italian, English, French, Spanish and Hebrew.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide received his ordination from the Roman Catholic Church in 1982, and quickly became a popular religious leader in Haiti. Once his preaching began to take on a more political bent, he was removed from the Salesian order. He became known as a radical populist, at major odds with Haiti’s current dictatorship. Aristide regularly railed publicly against Francois (Papa Doc) and Jean-Paul (Baby Doc) Duvalier, father-son dictators who had brutally oppressed his fellow Haitians.
By 1986, prompted by public protest, the Duvaliers fled the country, and the military took power of Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide continued his charitable work with Haiti’s poor by establishing a half-way house for children as well as a health clinic. Local and international pressure led to the first democratic elections in 1990, and Aristide decided to enter the running late in the race. Although his Lavalas (“avalanche”) Party failed to gain a significant hold in parliament, Aristide won a little more than 67% of the popular vote and was elected to the presidency.
His victory would be short lived—by September of 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed by a military coup led by General Raoul Cedras and was exiled from the country. Subsequently, a trade embargo on Haiti was put in place by the United States and the United Nations in protest of the military junta that was now in control of the country. This began a process of negotiations with then US President, Bill Clinton and Cedras to reinstate Aristide in his office, but Cedras refused to agree to the terms. In a show of force Clinton named “Restore Democracy,” which included 23,000 US troops sent to Haiti, Cedras agreed to allow Aristide to serve out the last year of his term in 1994.
Due to a law that presidents could not serve consecutive terms, Aristide was not allowed to run for another term. In 1995, he left the priesthood and married Mildren Trouillot. He remained a political activist and humanitarian until 2000, when he was re-elected president, amidst protest of voting fraud. In 2004, after an embattled presidency rife with political protest, widespread poverty and pressure of further military coups, Aristide was ousted yet again and fled to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide continues to be vocal from South Africa concerning the plight of the Haitian people, and his desire to return to lead them again. He has written several books on the matter, including Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, Dignity and Aristide: An Autobiography.