Last May I went to see Jean-Bertrand Aristide at his big white house in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. I’d been there in March, when the former president had been back home only a week, and the place had the feel of a set under construction: workmen in overalls among the mango trees, the smell of new paint, a sputtering tap in the office bathroom. Now the Aristides’ boxes had arrived from Pretoria, where the family spent most of their seven-year exile, and Aristide’s office was dominated by a piece of scientific equipment, positioned – conspicuously, I thought – near the visitors’ couch. Its gleaming monitor was set to ‘on’ and displayed several jagged graphs. A thicket of bright-coloured electrodes dangled from a rack.

Aristide explained that it was an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine and that he used it for his research. He had a PhD in African languages from the University of South Africa – his dissertation posited a ‘psycho-theological’ kinship between Zulu and Haitian Creole – and he was continuing his linguistics research, he said, though now from a biological perspective. All day long there were visitors (‘from early in the morning to late at night, they come and come and come’), but he also sat for several hours before his EEG machine, studying the effect on brainwaves of different words, languages and music. The EEG machine allowed one to ‘go deep’ into the functioning of the brain, he explained. He deflected my questions about his study’s hypothesis and its preliminary findings, saying it would take too long to explain.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Well, how much do you know about the anatomy of the brain?’

‘Not very much.’

‘Yes, it would take a very long time.’

Aristide rose and walked over to his desk, and picked up a plastic, grapefruit-size model of the brain – one of the few things on it. Then he sat down again across from me and pulled the model apart to show me the corpus callosum, which, he said, processes everything one hears and senses, ‘except the sense of smell’.

I wondered how serious his study was, and perhaps the confusion showed on my face.

‘For instance, if I say the word “Haiti” to you, it will do certain things to your brainwaves,’ Aristide said. ‘If I say the word “Haiti” to someone else, it might have the opposite effect.’

That made a sort of sense, I supposed. As we spoke, however, I got the impression that the main subject of Aristide’s research was himself. He refused to talk about politics and had no impressions of the damage the earthquake had done to the city, as he had not left his house since his return. Casting about for some small talk, I asked if he still played the guitar, as he had when he was a parish priest.

A fond little smile played on his face. ‘No, not anymore,’ he said. ‘A few years ago, I started to learn the flute instead. For my research.’ He explained that unlike the guitar or the church organ, which use chords, the flute produces a single line of melody, one note at a time. The linearity of its music made the flute more suited to his research. The image of Aristide, the pivotal figure of modern Haitian politics and once the standard-bearer for democracy, sitting in front of his EEG machine, electrodes on his head, playing the flute, made me uncomfortable.

The notion that he is crazy is an old one. A 1992 CIA profile diagnosed him as a ‘psychotic manic depressive with proven homicidal tendencies’, but the profile was probably based on a forged affidavit from an imaginary doctor in Montreal, unmarked vials of pills (some reports held it was heart medication) and creative interpretation of some of his art and his doodles, sourced and Rorschach-ed by an American with strong ties to Jesse Helms and the junta that ousted Aristide in 1991. They were all desperate to prevent him from returning to Haiti. The apposite Creole proverb is: ‘if you want to kill a dog, say it has rabies.’ It didn’t work, not immediately. Twenty thousand US Marines escorted Aristide back to the National Palace in 1994. But ten years later, he was ousted again – again with the covert support of some arms of the US government – and exiled to Africa.

By the time I came to live in Haiti, in 2007 (I was on a postgraduate fellowship), Aristide’s absence had muffled most of the palab – rumours – about him. His critics preferred not to speak of him at all, and some accused me of harbouring a neophyte’s obsession with him. Yet in early 2011, as the date of his return loomed, my contacts began calling to tell me things it was hard to imagine educated people actually believed. A textile magnate insisted Aristide had sacrificed a baby by grinding it up with a mortar and pestle. Leftist historians swore he flew around at night on a broom. One morning my landlady, aware that I was writing about Aristide, stopped by to impart another sort of warning: she knew a journalist, she said, whom he had raped. In a few days, I would hear the same thing, rumour disguised as concern, from an American embassy worker. The idea of Aristide as rapist was laughable to me, not because it was a cliché – ‘First World woman aggressed by savage negro’ – but because it fitted so badly with what I’d seen of the man: tiny, balding, mild, bespectacled, blinking constantly because of an eye ailment, string vest peeking out through the gap created by a forgotten button. Out of power, unwilling or unable to leave his house, Aristide seemed to me small, meek and sad.

To his supporters, aspersions about Aristide’s mental health and allegations about violent behaviour were part of a decades-long attempt to subvert the democratic struggle. They saw the bug-eyed former priest as a latter-day St Francis whose almost mystical connection to the poor terrified the Haitian elite and American onlookers. They allowed that he might seem eccentric, or even touched; given the circumstances, it wasn’t unreasonable. Living nobly in an ignoble place could give one an otherworldly air.

Aristide’s demand in 2004 for $21 billion in reparations from France showed how the logical became illogical when it happened in Haiti, and how Aristide’s reputation bore the brunt. It was the bicentenary of Haiti’s independence, and the $21 billion was the inflation-adjusted equivalent of the money Haiti started paying France in 1825 to compensate colonial plantation owners for the loss of their property, largely slaves. In return, France had recognised Haiti’s sovereignty, lifted a trade embargo, and financed a usurious loan for indemnity payments that Haitians bore for almost a hundred years. Merci, patron! Aristide’s call for restitution was considered another sign of his lunacy.

In the 1980s, Aristide had been a shantytown priest whose homilies were steeped in liberation theology. ‘Tout moun se moun’ (‘every person is a person’), he had told the field hands, factory workers and servants who passed around cassettes of his sermons. The idea was novel in Haiti, where the elite, the state and the church had long exploited and repressed everyone else. They’d denied the population education and basic services, taxed them into debt and expropriated their land. When they protested, the army or the Tontons Macoutes were sent to subdue them. The regime worked best when the poor recognised their oppression as the normal state of affairs. Aristide’s talk of redistribution, dignity and justice threatened all that. He told the poor they could speak, and they elected him president in 1990 with 67 per cent of the vote in a crowded field. After his inauguration, he invited the poorest of his constituents to the National Palace. On the broad green lawn, soldiers served rice and beans: ‘Bò tab la’ – that everyone deserves a place ‘at the table’ – had been one of the new president’s slogans.

Well before he entered electoral politics people were trying to kill Aristide. He survived several assassination attempts but witnessed the murders of many close to him. One Sunday in September 1988, under the junta that replaced the Duvalier regime, unknown assailants wearing red armbands and carrying machine guns and machetes came to the church of St Jean Bosco where Aristide was saying mass. Soldiers and policemen stood by as the assailants began slicing through the white-garbed congregants and went for petrol to burn the place down. Aristide was hustled to the church’s residence. There, according to Amy Wilentz in her chronicle of Aristide’s rise to power, The Rainy Season, the assailants found him, stripped him to his vest in a farcical search for weapons, and held their guns to his heart. Then at the last minute, they desisted. No one, Wilentz surmised, wanted to be the person who’d killed Aristide.

Aristide suffered numerous ‘nervous prostrations’ and migraines throughout his years in public life. For weeks on end, he would refuse to get out of bed, to take medicine, to eat, to talk. His Salesian order first tried to send him away – he was getting too political, its leaders said – and then expelled him. His victory in the 1990 presidential election was fleeting; there was an attempt to overthrow him even before he arrived at the National Palace. He stayed in office for only seven months before a coup d’état sent him into a three-year exile.

He spent most of that time in Washington, trying to negotiate with the junta over the terms of his return while the United States played the role of reluctant arbitrator. His eyes were glued to events at home: paramilitaries massacred his supporters in the slums; assassins killed his officials, clerics and financial backers (one was hauled out of a memorial service for the victims of the St Jean Bosco massacre and shot on the street); a trade embargo strangled the already feeble economy; refugees in rickety boats were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and interned for months at Guantánamo Bay.

The terms of his 1994 return package were not favourable. He agreed to an amnesty for the leaders of the junta, to share power with centrists more appealing to the Americans, and to implement a drastic structural adjustment programme that rendered his liberation theology so much empty rhetoric. ‘The whole country went into a deep depression,’ a Canadian onlooker told me. ‘And it’s never come out.’

Haiti’s troubles raised its profile abroad, and in the US well-meaning leftists and such celebrities as Jonathan Demme and Danny Glover rallied to the cause. The situation offered moral clarity: the junta was evil, craven and wealthy; the masses were innocent, brave and outgunned. Human rights lawyers took the Guantánamo boat people cases to the Supreme Court. In the American mind, Aristide symbolised both the struggle of the Haitian people for dignity and the fight against US interference in Latin America more generally.

That must have been a lot for a man to bear. Even without the compromises he’d made in order to get home, Aristide’s return to the presidency couldn’t have resolved the structural problems that have long characterised Haiti: inequality, poverty, weak institutions, predatory politics and the fragile pretence of sovereignty. Besides, Aristide had by now changed. The guayaberas and guitar were gone, dropped in favour of suits and gold cufflinks, the wardrobe of a statesman. He had left the priesthood and married, started a family and moved to the big white house in the suburbs. Sometimes he commuted by helicopter. Journalists stopped being so adulatory, and Aristide stopped receiving them, which only added to the speculation that surrounded him. His enemies were titillated. Amid whispers of megalomania, sacrificed babies and sorcery, of a new taste for power and money, and of an abandonment of socialist principles, Aristide saw out his first, moth-eaten term in office. When he took office again in 2001, after elections boycotted by the elite, he was no longer considered a saint.

The Bush administration oversaw Aristide’s departure at the time of the 2004 coup. In the pre-dawn hours of 29 February, agents instructed him to prepare for a press conference at the National Palace and instead ferried him to the airport, where they trundled him and his wife Mildred onto an unmarked jet filled with burly Americans. No one told them where the plane was going, so it was a surprise when it landed in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Fearing for his client’s life, Ira Kurzban, Aristide’s Miami-based lawyer, flew to Bangui along with Congresswoman Maxine Waters to retrieve him and take him to Jamaica. By June he was settled in South Africa.

Seven years later, as Aristide and the government of South Africa prepared for his return to Haiti, Kurzban worried that the plane would be shot down. He heard something ominous in State Department releases that accused Aristide of wanting to interfere with upcoming elections and insisted on Haiti’s need ‘to focus on its future, not its past’. In the event, thousands of Haitians were at the airport to hear him compare himself to Toussaint L’Ouverture, and many jogged alongside his car for the few kilometres to the big white house in the suburbs. The atmosphere was jubilant, I was told. People scaled the walls and the mango trees and thronged the courtyard to catch a glimpse of him.

Sitting in his office a week after his return from South Africa, Aristide told me that a friend of his had described his reception as a ‘tsunami of love’. He was trying to be modest, but the phrase clearly delighted him, and he kept returning to it. ‘I was really surprised when I heard it,’ he said, ‘but it made sense, because in fact the power, the strength, you could see driving the people, expressing joy, it was nothing more than the expression of collective love.’ Aristide makes generous use of the word ‘love’. He describes his relationship with the Haitian people as ‘a love story’. It survived the burning of the church of St Jean Bosco, and the 1991 coup, and the seven years he spent in South Africa. The love Aristide described –‘meme amour’, he called it – encompassed the love a mother has for her children, the love Haiti’s diaspora showed in their remittances to the country and the love Toussaint L’Ouverture showed in his revolutionary sacrifices. ‘What I really feel is the same as they feel,’ Aristide said. ‘Hey, it’s not a declaration of love as something said lightly. No no no no no. It’s the same kind of love that our forefathers felt when they gave their lives to be free.’

Aristide didn’t leave his house throughout the spring and the summer. He didn’t go out among the people to see the squalor they still live in two years after the quake – the leaky tents, the dirty water, the barefoot children. He claimed the reason had nothing to do with security, but I had my doubts. He pointed out that he received visitors constantly and that gallivanting about would cause a ruckus.

‘Aren’t you curious about the way the city has changed, with the earthquake and seven years and everything else?’ I asked.

‘Well, yes, I am curious,’ he said. ‘But not the way a child is curious. And anyway, I will be here for a long time. I’m not going anywhere.’

I heard laughter, then some shrieking through the thin walls of his office. ‘My daughters,’ Aristide explained with a grin. He was enrolling them in a school downtown and seemed confident about their ability to get by in Port-au-Prince, a town where everyone knew their father.

Aristide has refused to speak with most journalists. For me, he made an exception; he said he felt he could trust me because I had flown to South Africa to see him, because Kurzban had recommended me, and because, he said, he liked my ‘vibe’. Aristide’s press secretary had tried to prod him out of his public silence and reclusiveness, to speak with more journalists. Perhaps she figured it would be to his advantage to define himself, rather than allow the palab to define him. She didn’t think he had anything to hide.

But Aristide had shown himself again and again, and it had ended badly. He had allowed a long line of foreign journalists and other outsiders to tell the rest of the world who he was. It had worked well when they painted him as a hero, but became painful when they caricatured him as a madman. Besides, for a quarter century, the main question about Haitian politics was Who is Aristide? Saint, sinner, martyr, sorcerer, rapist, family man, friend to the poor, exploiter of the poor, sell-out, has-been, will-be, messiah. The experience must have been wearying. Maybe that’s why he spent all those hours cooped up in his office in front of the EEG machine, looking deep inside his cranium: it was an effort to find out for himself what makes him tick. What does the word ‘Haiti’ do to Aristide’s brainwaves?

In October, Aristide made his first appearance since his return to Haiti – to much surprise, alongside the new president, Michel Martelly. It was a ‘reconciliation’ meeting, snippets of which were broadcast on state television. Though both men are populists, Martelly has never won the same devotion as Aristide – less than a quarter of the population bothered to vote in the election – and they are ideologically far apart. Martelly wants to bring back the army that Aristide dissolved in 1995; his prosecutors have recommended dropping charges of crimes against humanity against Jean-Claude Duvalier; he likes to talk about how friendly the country has become to foreign investors; and he doesn’t seem to lack support from Washington. Before he became a politician, he made no secret of his loathing for Aristide. As a pop star in the early 1990s, he entertained the junta and the elite, even playing at a demonstration against Aristide’s return. It is quite unclear why Aristide agreed to the meeting – carrot or stick? – but it pointed up the withering of Haiti’s democratic movement.

A few days after my first visit to Aristide’s house, I met with an American foreign service officer. We discussed the second round of voting in the presidential election – it had just taken place. The officer passed on a juicy titbit: on the day of Aristide’s arrival, she said, the crowds who came to greet him ransacked his house and made off with all the furniture. His wife and daughters had fled to Santo Domingo.

‘But I was just there,’ I said, confused. ‘Everything looked fine to me.’

The officer paused. ‘Oh, well, that’s just a rumour. It’s not confirmed.’

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