Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Profile of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's exiled former president, who returned to Haiti two months after the return of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Twice elected, twice overthrown, ex-president returns

Jean-Bertrand Aristide is sworn in as Haiti's president for his second term, in front of departing president René Préval, left, and Senate president Yvon Neptune in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 7, 2001. Préval returned to the office in 2006. ((Kimberly White/Reuters))

Jean-Bertrand Aristide has returned to Haiti for the first time since he left the country — and the presidency — on a U.S. jet on Feb. 29, 2004. 

Since then, he had been asking the Haitian government to let him return to his homeland. After the return of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier  in January, Aristide renewed his plea

Aristide had also made the request publicly after the election of current President René Préval in 2006 and again after the earthquake in 2010.

Unlike Duvalier, who inherited the title of "president-for-life" from his father, Aristide was elected to the office in 1990 and again in 2000.

Aristide's early years

Dressed as he was for his presidential inauguration 10 years ago, Jean-Bertrand Aristide greets a crowd during his arrival at the international airport in Port-au-Prince March 18, ending seven years of exile. ((Shannon Stapleton/Reuters))

Schooled predominantly in a Roman Catholic environment, the 50-year-old ex-president's interest in the liberal arts led him to postgraduate studies in psychology and theology in Haiti, and to Rome and Israel, where he studied biblical theology for two years.

In 1983, Aristide was ordained and appointed curate of a small parish outside Port-au-Prince. His religiosity soon developed some strong political language and he found himself litigating on behalf of his poor parishioners.

A progressive Catholic and outspoken critic of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Aristide used his radio sermons to mobilize Haiti's predominantly poor population against the Duvalier government and the military governments that followed.

In 1986, Aristide founded a home for street children called The Family Is Life. And that year a popular uprising led to Duvalier's overthrow.

From priest to politician

It's believed Aristide survived nine attempts on his life, one occurring in 1988 while he was giving mass. He survived but dozens of churchgoers were killed. Aristide was later expelled from the Salesian Order for mixing politics with religion.

In 1990, Aristide launched a  campaign to become president of Haiti. He won with 67 per cent of the vote.

He publicly proclaimed that his reform government would abide by the principles of participation, transparency and justice. This would involve cleansing the civil service of corrupt officials, fighting drug trafficking and bringing programs to the people.

On Sept. 30, 1991, a military coup forced Aristide into exile, first to Venezuela and then to Washington, D.C.

Peasant organizations, some journalists, students and political activists continued to support Aristide, who was recognized by many countries as Haiti's legitimate president.

Aristide's 1st exile

During his time in exile, Aristide took time to write Aristide: An Autobiography and Theology and Politics.

After three years of lobbying the international community to restore democracy to Haiti, and following a U.S. invasion, Aristide returned to the country on Oct. 15, 1994.

One of the first things he did upon his re-entry was to dismantle the Haitian military and create a civilian police force.

Aristide did not run for a new presidential term in 1995 because of constitutional restraints, which brought his handpicked successor Préval to power as Haiti's president for the next five years.

On Jan. 20, 1996, Aristide married Mildred Trouillot, an American lawyer with Haitian roots. They have two daughters.

Out of power, Aristide established the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, which aims to bring food, jobs, health care, education, justice and peace to Haiti's large population.

Aristide re-elected president

In 2000, Aristide was re-elected president with 92 per cent of the vote following a campaign that was so marked by violence and intimidation that opposition candidates boycotted the election.

During his campaign, Aristide promised to create 500,000 jobs for people mired in crushing poverty, democratic reforms and improved protection of human rights.

Weeks before Aristide's inauguration, Bill Clinton, who had worked to restore Aristide to power during his first term, left and George W. Bush moved into the White House.. That change would determine Aristide's fate.

In December 2001 Aristide survived an attempted coup that left five people dead.

A 2003 Amnesty International report accuses Aristide supporters of numerous human rights abuses, many incidences of police corruption, violence against journalists and attacks on free speech.

Aristide opponents formed a band of 200 or so armed Haitian rebels, led by an accused death squad leader.

Aristide's 2nd overthrow

In January 2004, on the bicentennial of Haiti's independence from France, the opposition — with U.S. support — called for Aristide's resignation, accusing him of corruption. Violent protests erupted on the streets and rebel forces began to take over parts of the country.

Aristide and his party Fanmi Lavalas (FL), meanwhile, "relied on intimidation, violence and corruption to maintain themselves in power," Alex Dupuy writes in his 2007 book on Aristide, The Prophet and Power.

"But if Aristide and the FL subverted democracy," Dupuy adds, "so too did the organized opposition, the Haitian bourgeoisie and their foreign allies."

Haiti had no army and Haiti's corrupt and lightly armed police provided little resistance to the well-armed  rebels.

Within a few weeks Aristide was once again on his way into exile, this time in Africa, on a plane chartered by the U.S. government.

Canada, the U.S. and France, with UN backing, oversaw the formation of a new government, while a UN-approved international force entered Haiti to deal with the violence.

What followed was two years of repression, chaos, lawlessness and severely dysfunctional government.

Exiled again

Aristide reunited with his family in Jamaica in March and then on May 31, 2004, left  for asylum in South Africa, insisting he was still Haiti's legitimate leader and promising to return one day. South African President Thabo Mbeki and other African officials met Aristide on his arrival in Johannesburg, a gesture usually reserved for acting heads of state.

Following the confirmation of Préval as Haiti's president-elect on Feb. 16, 2006, Aristide announced that he was ready to return to Haiti, but that it was up to Préval to determine when the time is right. During the campaign Préval said he was ready to end Aristide's exile.


Haiti timeline, 1957-2011

On the timeline, clicking on a dot or an event title brings up a description of the event. Right-clicking on a link in a description opens the link in a new window/tab. The sliders on the bottom expand or contract a time period.

(There's also a CBC timeline on Haiti from 2006 that has more details and links for the 2004-2006 period.)