Sitting in Au Bon Pain Sunday morning, Jihan Mercier ’05 shifted excitedly in her chair as an irrepressible grin spread across her face. Gun shots still echo in her home city of Port-au-Prince, and chaos still reigns in the Haitian countryside. Her father and brother cannot leave their house for fear of death, and the future of her beleaguered nation is uncertain at best. But after weeks of worry, Mercier had finally received reason to celebrate.
That morning at 8 a.m., the telephone rang. It was her mother with exciting news: Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, under pressure from the United States and France, had resigned his post and fled the country.
Aristide’s departure followed three weeks of civil unrest sparked by rebel forces campaigning for his removal from office and retaliations against this insurgence by his supporters. Since it began, the uprising has caused around 100 deaths, crippling many cities with fires and looting.
In the United States, where few people fully understand the situation in Haiti, Mercier’s smile at a time of such instability may seem strange. But for Mercier, the only native Haitian in Yale College, Aristide’s departure signals the beginning of a more hopeful chapter in Haiti’s long history. Although some Haitian-Americans at Yale have watched the evolving situation, for Mercier, it strikes closer to home.
“All my friends [Instant Messaged] me, ‘He’s gone, he’s gone,’ in Kreyol,” Mercier said. “We’re all hoping for the best. We’re really ecstatic.”
The first democratically elected Haitian president, Aristide, a former priest, has long been accused of corruption and violent suppression of dissent. His power deteriorated this weekend after the Bush administration changed its stance toward Aristide, now advising him to step down.
In Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien, citizens celebrated the news in the streets, The New York Times reported Sunday.
Mercier, who lived through Aristide’s election in 1990, the coup d’etat that ended his first term in 1991, and his subsequent reinstatement by the United States in 1994, said she had expected this upheaval to occur much earlier than it did.
“I think the situation was way overdue,” she said. “It should have happened a long time ago.”
When the current rebellion began on Feb. 5, Mercier’s mother and sister happened to be in the United States. Still in Haiti, her father and brother found themselves unable to flee when all airlines cancelled flights and Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, closed its borders.
Since then, Mercier and her mother and sister have nervously followed the situation from the United States.
“My brother had exams,” she said. “They didn’t know it would escalate.”
In Au Bon Pain, Mercier recounted crimes she and many Haitians believe Aristide committed: his ties to drug trafficking, his promotion of division among Haiti’s already pronounced economic classes, and his transformation from priest to murderer.
“He was originally a priest, but he violated everything that religion stands for,” she said.
Those responsible for the majority of the violence, Mercier said, are Aristide’s supporters, called the Chimeres, and not the anti-Aristide rebels.
Despite all Mercier has seen and lived through, while she remains at Yale, Mercier must celebrate the deposal of Aristide alone. Most Haitian-Americans at Yale — Mercier said around 20 to 25 students of Haitian decent are currently enrolled — are not as enthusiastic about the removal of Aristide.
Ralph Labossiere ’05, a native of New York whose parents are Haitian immigrants, said he worries for his many relatives living in Haiti and is apprehensive for the future of the country after the failure of democracy.
“It’s a shame because Aristide was the democratically elected president, and you never want democracy to fail like that,” Labossiere said.
Like many Haitians and Haitian-Americans, Labossiere in part blames the United States for the current situation. Many of those who have followed recent Haitian history say the United States should have maintained a presence in Haiti for a longer period after reinstating Aristide in 1994.
Bush announced Sunday that the United States would be sending in an interim Marine force to Haiti to help restore order.
“If the United States is going in, do it right this time,” Labossiere said. “Once you enter, you have to do a good job.”
In 1994, the United States helped Aristide regain power, in part because of the huge influx of Haitian refugees to Florida during the embargo. On Feb. 24, Bush announced the United States would turn back all Haitian refugees.
“I’m more disappointed in Bush and Governor Jeb Bush’s reaction to refugees,” said Lianne Labossiere ’06, a Haitian-American who lives in Miami, Fla. (and is not related to Ralph Labossiere). “If you say the situation is terrible, and then you send all those refugees back, it seems kind of strange.”
The rebellion and resignation of Aristide comes at a particularly poignant time for Haiti: the bicentennial anniversary of the first black republic’s independence.
To Mercier, the current situation is an echo of the initial rebellion by black slaves that led to Haiti’s independence from France, but also a reminder of how unstable the nation remains.
“As the first nation to get our independence, it’s really sad that we’re in this situation now,” she said. “The people are fighting for their independence now.”
Mercier said she believes the arrival of international peacekeeping forces will significantly improve the situation. The violence, she said, has reached its worst.
“It can’t get any worse than it got,” she said. “I think its going to get a lot better.”