The common wisdom (as promoted by our government and most of the media) is that Jean-Bertrand Artistide was a corrupt and violent leader unworthy of his post. Nicolas Rossier's documentary attempts to untangle the complex and less-than-certain truth behind the popular clergyman's rise to political prominence and the governmental misadventures that led him to be unseated twice.
In 1990, Aristide, a fiery priest who championed causes for the poor, became the first democratically elected leader of Haiti, winning 67 percent of the vote. Challenging the country's wealthy elite, he called for higher minimum wages and tax reforms. This threatened the economic interests of industries affiliated with American companies like Wal-Mart. Backed by France and the Bush administration, the military staged a coup and toppled his presidency after only one year in office.
Four years later, Bill Clinton restored Aristide to power. In 1996, unable to constitutionally serve consecutive terms, he peacefully handed over power to René Préval another Haitian first. Over the next four years, Préval was pressured by the International Monetary Fund to privatize many of Haiti's government holdings while popular discontent continued. Aristide returned to be elected again in 2000, this time with 91 percent of the popular vote. Still, his government immediately drew opposition from the Haiti Democracy Project (an organization backed by American business interests) and George W. Bush's administration. Denied international aid, forced to service loans the country never received, and saddled with an embargo, the island nation slid into rampant anarchy and poverty. Again forced out by coup d'état, Aristide claims he was kidnapped by the United States and forced into exile.
This assertion is at the heart of Rossier's film. Interviewing celebrity boosters like Noam Chomsky and actor Danny Glover as well as supporters in the political mainstream like economist Paul Farmer, journalist Kim Ives and Clinton's special envoy James Dobbins the film does a good job of cleaning up the image of Aristide and his Lavalas party. Instead, international businesses come off as thugs, steamrolling democracy in favor of economic exploitation.
Interviews with the now-banished Aristide (currently living in South Africa) reveal a man stunned that countries extolling the virtues of democracy are so quick to suppress the will of the people when they disagree.
To Rossier's credit, he does address allegations of corruption and murder made by Aristide's opponents, but the presentation is hardly balanced. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and former ambassador to Haiti Timothy Carney strongly dispute claims that the United States undermined Haiti's sovereignty, though some of their claims against the former president are questionable.
As documentaries go, there isn't much in the way of stylization or directorial signature. It has the same kind of paint-by-numbers structure found on the History Channel, and the overly sober approach isn't served well by a heavy synthesizer score and flat narration.
Ultimately, there are no eye-opening bombshells or smoking guns to be found, and the documentary's sympathies overshadow its revelations. Believers will once again find reason to be suspicious and disgusted by the actions of our corporate-culture government, and doubters will write it all off as propaganda.
Nevertheless, as a window into our country's right-wing attitudes about emerging democracies, the film is particularly timely. One has only to look at our administration's foreign policy goals with regard to Iraq and Venezuela to get a sense of déjà vu.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 20. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].