On Feb. 7, 1991 the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti's first democratically elected President in 200 years, after receiving 70 percent of the popular vote. Elements of the Army have now deposed Father Aristide as we go to press, which makes the following conversation a sad one. The interview, in English, was taped by the Most Rev. Emerson J. Moore, Auxiliary Bishop of New York, who visited Port-au-Prince last month for Catholic Relief Services. These are excerpts:
You are faced with enormous expectations from the Haitian people. Will you be able to meet them?
The thing is, we are now the subjects of our own history. So we are not waiting for help to come from another country without doing something to change the situation ourselves. Because we no longer accept a small group's exploiting the majority, it's possible to hope for good cooperation from abroad. When that help arrives, we can share it with the majority: the opposite of what we had in the past. So we can hope for a new country, where day by day, without just waiting for help, we'll do better.
A recent New York Times story indicated you have a good working relationship with the U. S. Ambassador in Haiti. Do you agree that the relationship with the U. S. Government is a good one?
I agree that it's good. First, there's mutual respect. I think in the past it wasn't easy for the States to respect Haiti, because our governments couldn't demand this respect when they were involved in corruption. Since Feb. 7, we have been cleaning things up, and we want to stay clean, fighting against any kind of corruption or dictatorship. Haiti is playing a historical role in the world. Here in Haiti, for the first time, we were able to change the political situation before changing the social situation, and without weapons-which is a beautiful lesson for the world. I hope the United States will continue to respect our will, our people, our dignity, just as we respect them.
From a theological point of view, we are giving a biblical lesson, which we share with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Not because we want to say we are better than they-no-but just because God continues to do in Haiti what it pleases Him to do with Israel in the Bible and with poor people.
We African-Americans still have to deal with racism daily, and your election is an example of hope for all of us. What message would you offer us?
One theologian I know of has written a beautiful book in which he says, "God is black." His point is that, when the Egyptians were killing God's people, God was in Moses and with the Jews, to fight against Pharaoh. God took the part of the little people. In the past in the United States, where black people were exploited by white people, God became black because He is always with the little people, with the poor.
Today I think what is going on in Haiti is the same story, the story of God. Here you have the poorest country, and God passes among us to say, "I am with you as Haitians, and so I am God and I am Haitian." With solidarity here in Haiti we can do a lot. Day by day we are building solidarity, becoming stronger and stronger. We will not say that we are superior to white people. No, we will say we are all brothers, and we will not accept oppression from them. When we give this answer, I think we continue the story of God. When we can build a bridge between black and white, we become children of God, the God who is at the same time white and black.
Do you feel that your role as President conforms to your vision of the priesthood?
I would not say I am Moses. No. But I can say our people are putting into practice the will of God, building solidarity, and in so doing they have chosen one of us to play, this role of President who is a priest. To become a priest is to become one of those who serve their brothers and sisters. That's what Christ did. In becoming President we just continue to serve, and in serving people one can not forget the poor. The whole Bible shows how God is always close to poor people. If someone is sick, Jesus visits that person, and if in prison, the same. All that Jesus did is a lesson for us, so that we might try to do the same. And I think that here in Haiti if, after all these years, we have a priest as President, it's not just because this priest wanted to become President. No. It's because God wanted us to do a special service for His people.
I've said I don't think I am Moses. But I am sure God is doing something for His people, and I have to do my job as the servant of God. For instance, we want a literacy program, because we have 85 percent of the population who do not know how to write their name. For us it way to put into practice that beautiful Gospel passage where we see God, in Jesus, leaving the 99 sheep to go to look for the one. Here in Haiti, those 99 are the majority who did not have the chance to go to school. If we have 15 percent who got the chance-among them, Catholic priests, sisters, brothers-so now in the name of Jesus we go to look for those 85 percent.
As President, I will govern with the Constitution, not the Bible. But as a Christian, I also have the Bible in my hand, to read it and to learn from God how to be at the same time priest and President.