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Aristide the Film

Review: Aristide and the Endless Revolution. 2005. Baraka Productions. 83 min. Movie site: www.aristidethefilm.com Available from www.firstrunfeatures.com

Each fact is disputed. Haiti’s President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a coup and kidnapped by the United States on February 29, 2004, says Aristide himself. Aristide left voluntarily, say US officials Colin Powell and Roger Noriega.

Despite the cliché that journalists seek ‘balance’, to get ‘both sides of the story’, the voices of Aristide and his Lavalas political party and movement, whose leaders have been exiled or jailed or massacred since his ouster, have been left out of most coverage of Haiti since that 2004 coup.

The world is expected to understand the events unfolding in Haiti since 2004 without hearing from the victims. Aside from skewing global opinion, the disinformation campaign in Haiti has prevented supporters of Lavalas inside Haiti from being able to talk openly about the issues. Outside of the country, supporters of democracy are left to talk on listerves and Web sites, where their words can be ignored.

For these reason, Nicolas Rossier’s film, ‘Aristide and the Endless Revolution’, is a real journalistic service to the community. The interviews that make up the feature-length (83 minute) film are weighted towards American pro-democracy activists and friends of Haiti: Paul Farmer, physician and author of ‘The Uses of Haiti’, Brian Concannon Jr. of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, Ira Kurzban, legal counsel to Aristide, Professor Noam Chomsky, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, actor Danny Glover, writer Kim Ives, researcher Tom Griffin, all appear. So too does the voice of another important American Haiti filmmaker, Kevin Pina, who narrates from the streets of Haiti as the coup is unfolding. Haitians and Haitian-Americans are interviewed as well, among them unionist Ray Laforest, who discusses the historical background of Aristide’s rise to power, and radio journalist Ricot Dupuis who argues that Aristide made tactical errors.

But Rossier’s film adds credibility to the analysis presented in these interviews by adding footage of the denials of US Ambassador Foley, US President George Bush, and by featuring an interview with US envoy Roger Noriega, who was instrumental in Aristide’s overthrow. He also interviews anti-Aristide Haitians like Fr. Poulard who says Aristide promoted class struggle, sociologist Lennok Rubin who says Aristide failed to control gangs and corruption, and journalist Claude Moise, who was an important figure in the local opposition to Aristide. Finally, he includes liberal figures like John Shattuck, Assistant Secretary of State under Clinton, who admits Aristide gave a voice to the poor, and Ambassador Marville of Barbados, who describes the ‘negotiations’ that took place before Aristide’s removal.

In this way, ‘Aristide and the Endless Revolution’ does what so few pieces have done since 2004: it provides a genuine opportunity for viewers to evaluate the claims of the ousted democratic government and the coupsters. The film’s weighting towards pro-democracy and pro-Lavalas interviewees only increases its value as a corrective to the repetition of false claims and insinuations in the media.

While it contains some powerful footage, including speeches from Aristide’s Port au Prince parish, St. John Bosco’s, in the 1980s, and tense scenes from the Congressional hearings on Haiti, the film is mainly a collection of unrushed interviews, carefully spliced to enable them to explain several complex issues. The film explains first the background to the coup, followed by the unfolding of the coup and the pretext used to attack Aristide’s legitimacy: the May 2000 legislative elections in which 7 Lavalas senators took their seats without winning an absolute majority and without holding runoff elections. After explaining how these elections were conflated with the November 2000 elections, which Aristide won in a landslide, the film goes on to explain the US embargo that was immediately imposed, and the effects of starving the government over four years. “Does everyone understand”, Maxine Waters asks in the Congressional hearings, “how this embargo meant the government had no money to pay for roads, no money to pay for schools, no money to pay for hospitals, no money to pay the police, no money for the fire department?” Economist Jeffrey Sachs replies to her, explaining that the embargo was even worse – the United States had blocked the Interamerican Development Bank from disbursing $650 million in loans to the Haitian government, but Haiti was still forced to pay interest on the loans.

With avenues for aid cut off, Aristide began agitating for justice, in the form of the 150 million franc- indemnity that France had charged the newly independent Haitian state in exchange for taking away France’s ‘property’ – the slaves who had freed themselves. The indemnity Haiti was forced to pay France over more than a century has a current value of some $22 billion USD. Aristide had all of the documentation necessary for a solid legal case – there was no murky problem of how to quantify the suffering of slavery, because these weren’t reparations. They were simply the return of money that had been extorted. After allowing various subjects to explain this, Rossier turns to a French official, explaining how Aristide’s claims were “living in the past” and being “unrealistic”. Haitian activist Ricot Dupuis said Aristide’s agitation for the return of the indemnity was a huge error, angering France and the US at the same time. Was it a tactical error? “Evidently,” Farmer replies. “Was Haiti too poor to ask for help? That is what you are saying, if you don’t have the power to back it up, don’t bother to ask for help.”

The film then compares the human rights records of the post-coup regime with the democratic government. On these issues, the film could be supplemented with Kevin Pina’s recent ‘Haiti: the UNtold Story’, which takes on a later period and chronicles human rights abuses in the poor neighbourhoods of Port au Prince under the period of UN stewardship.
‘Aristide and the Endless Revolution’ brings clarity to the deliberately muddied waters surrounding the 2004 coup. It is a very watchable, introductory piece that explains complex issues. Because it really does provide journalistic ‘balance’, it will be valuable in convincing people about what actually happened, and is happening in Haiti.

The film ends with footage of Aristide at a rally of his supporters, just weeks before the coup. In an interview, Aristide says he doesn’t know how people will be able to look in the mirror once they realize what they have done. “You can try very hard to kill the truth”, he says, “but you cannot kill it.”

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He visited Haiti in September-October 2005.

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