This Day In History: July 15th
Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, served two terms in office despite his tenure being clouded by controversy. However, whether Aristide was preaching from a pulpit or presiding over Haiti, he claimed to be a champion of liberation.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born on July 15, 1953, in Port Salut, Haiti. Politics was not Aristide’s initial calling. He attended a school in Port-au-Prince that was run by the Roman Catholic Salesian order, and he later moved to the Salesian seminary to prepare for his entry into the priesthood. In addition to receiving a church-based education, Aristide attended the University of Haiti.
He traveled to Israel, Egypt, Canada, and Britain where he took part in advanced biblical studies. By 1982, Aristide was ordained in the Salesian order and became an official member of the priesthood. Aristide returned to Haiti during the 1980s when political power was held by the Duvalier dynasty. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier controlled the country and his power was eventually transferred to his son, Jean-Paul, also known as “Baby Doc.”
Their reign was marked by fierce brutality and attacks on those who opposed the government’s authority. Aristide aligned himself with Ti Legliz (“Little Church”), a theological liberation group, during this time. He used the pulpit to spread messages of liberation rather than deliver a biblical sermon. However, his message wasn’t received well by everyone and he was held hostage for supporting opposition to a new political regime.
Three years later, over a dozen people were killed and more than 70 others were wounded in an attack during a mass service at St. Jean-Bosco church. The attack was a threat to Aristide’s life and he soon found himself at odds with the Salesian order. Aristide was expelled from the Society of St. Francis de Sales in 1988 for allegedly inciting hate and violence.
Two years after losing the support of the priesthood, Aristide was elected president of Haiti with more than 67 percent of the vote. He took the oath of office in 1991 but was forced to flee the country after Brigadier General Raoul Cedras overthrew the government in a coup. He was reinstated as president in 1994, and was also pressured into formally requesting to leave the priesthood.
In 1996, Haiti received a new president, but Aristide continued to involve himself in politics. He established the Fanmi Lavalas political party and was re-elected as president with 91 percent of the vote in 2000. His reign was short-lived and overshadowed by another coup and suspicions of corruption. Aristide resigned as President in 2004 and spent seven years in exile. He returned back to Haiti in 2011, after a deadly earthquake left much of Port-au-Prince destroyed.