Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in Haiti Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After years of autocratic rule under the Duvaliers, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who won the presidency by democratic vote. His tenure extended from February to September 30, 1991, when he was overthrown in a coup by Raoul Cédras.

Summary of Event

For thirty years, Haiti languished under the dictatorial and corrupt rule of the Duvalier family. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president in 1957 and declared himself “president for life” in 1964. He repressed opposition using a reign of physical terror in the form of his dreaded paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes. Leading Voodoo cultists were used to exert psychological terror on dissidents. At Papa Doc’s death in 1971, his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, continued the presidential dynasty. Under the Duvaliers, Haiti became the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere while a small number of leading families and the Duvaliers amassed great wealth. Haiti;government Elections;Haiti Democracy;Haiti [kw]Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in Haiti (Dec. 16, 1990) [kw]First Democratic Election in Haiti, Aristide Wins (Dec. 16, 1990) [kw]Democratic Election in Haiti, Aristide Wins First (Dec. 16, 1990) [kw]Election in Haiti, Aristide Wins First Democratic (Dec. 16, 1990) [kw]Haiti, Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in (Dec. 16, 1990) Haiti;government Elections;Haiti Democracy;Haiti [g]West Indies;Dec. 16, 1990: Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in Haiti[07950] [g]Haiti;Dec. 16, 1990: Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in Haiti[07950] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 16, 1990: Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in Haiti[07950] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 16, 1990: Aristide Wins First Democratic Election in Haiti[07950] Aristide, Jean-Bertrand Préval, René Cédras, Raoul Duvalier, Jean-Claude Duvalier, François Avril, Prosper

Demonstrations against Baby Doc began in earnest in October, 1985, and did not stop until February, 1986, when Jean-Claude fled to exile in Paris. For the next four years, Haiti was ruled by a number of ineffective provisional governments, mostly of a military caretaker nature. During this period, a constitution for a democratic parliamentary government was drafted. To prevent a recurrence of the Duvalier lifetime presidency, the constitution strictly barred any president from serving two consecutive terms in office. The fact that it was adopted in 1987 by referendum, abolished in 1988 following a military coup, and readopted in 1990 when civilian governance was restored underlined the precarious nature of the transition into democratic government.

Finally, in December, 1990, following concerted pressures by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the United States, Haiti’s first real democratic election was held under the watchful eyes of a multitude of international observers. Winning over two-thirds of the vote for president was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular Roman Catholic priest who promised major reforms to uplift the poverty-stricken masses. Few could doubt his integrity and sincerity. Many could doubt his ability to survive for long.

Orphaned as an infant, Aristide was raised by the Salesian Order of the Roman Catholic Church, whose mission was to minister to the general needs of the poor, especially those of poor or orphaned children. He was educated in their parochial schools and their seminary before attending the University of Haiti to earn a degree in psychology. As a program director at the Roman Catholic radio station (Radio Cacique) and a newspaper editorialist, Aristide established a reputation as a critique of Baby Doc’s government and an advocate of changes to benefit Haiti’s poor. His powerful sermons urged the poor to take responsibility for instituting needed changes. His words also earned him death threats from the Tontons Macoutes.

From 1979 to 1985, Aristide studied theology in Israel, Egypt, and Great Britain, ultimately earning a master’s degree in theology from the University of Montreal. During this period, he returned only once to Haiti—to receive his ordination as a priest of the Salesian Order in 1982. On his return to Haiti in 1985, he became the parish priest at St. Jean Bosco, one of the poorest parishes in Port-au-Prince. He used his polished oratory skills to help drive Baby Doc from power in 1986. However, his continued emphasis on liberation theology, on priests working with the poor to correct continuing abuses and inequalities, angered the military regimes of Generals Prosper Avril and Henri Namphy Namphy, Henri that succeeded Baby Doc.

Aristide survived several assassination attempts, Assassinations and attempts;Jean-Bertrand Aristide[Aristide] the worst being an attack in 1988 by about 100 armed Tontons Macoutes who attacked the congregation at St. Jean Bosco Church during Mass. Aristide barely escaped with his life, but thirteen members of the congregation lay dead and seventy were badly wounded. The church itself was burned to the ground. To prevent further attacks, Aristide was expelled from the Silesian Order and ordered to Rome, but mass demonstrations at Port-au-Prince blocked any means of sending Aristide abroad. He remained at Port-au-Prince ministering to the needs of street children, opening medical clinics and trade schools.

Future Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1988, when he was gaining a reputation as a Roman Catholic priest unafraid to speak out against the government without the support of his church.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

A few months before the elections in December, 1990, a mass popular movement taking the Creole name of Lavalas (flood) convinced Aristide to run for president against the front-runner, a respected career diplomat named Marc Bazin, Bazin, Marc several other candidates supported by leading families, and the head of the Tontons Macoutes. Aristide’s intent was to send a message about the needs of the poor, and, indeed, his campaign oratory was permeated with this theme. Few realized that since the poor masses would be voting in this free and monitored election, all bets should have been on an Aristide victory. However, the hastily formed Lavalas Party did not realize that Aristide’s popularity would not translate into a sweep of the newly formed parliament.

When he took office, Aristide pledged that he would cleanse the civil service of corrupt officials and Duvalier loyalists, fight against drug trafficking, and demolish all remaining vestiges of the Tontons Macoutes. His dedication was underscored when he stated that he would give his entire presidential salary to charity. Clearly, such a man could not be trusted by the former power structure, and on September 30, 1991, a military coup led by General Raoul Cédras took control as Aristide was in New York attending a meeting at the United Nations. Revolutions and coups;Haiti Hundreds of Aristide’s supporters were killed in the streets while protesting the military’s actions, and several thousand more would be killed in the subsequent two years of military rule. More than forty thousand Haitians would become boat people, asylum seekers fleeing oppression in their native land. Most would be returned by the United States to an uncertain fate in Haiti.

In spite of embargoes on Haitian exports and key imports such as oil, the military regime remained entrenched in power. As repression accelerated, Resolution 940 was passed by the U.N. Security Council to use all necessary means to restore the constitutionally elected government to power. After talks between Cédras and Aristide, brokered by the United Nations and the United States under Bill Clinton’s presidential administration, failed to produce results, it was obvious that decisive action was needed. Under U.N. mandate, more than twenty thousand U.S. troops prepared, in September, 1994, to launch Operation Restore Democracy. Operation Restore Democracy United Nations;peacekeeping At that time, former president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;postpresidency diplomacy was dispatched to Haiti with a small group of negotiators to offer the military junta a last-minute deal. As U.S. troops were airborne, the Cédras military regime agreed to step down and permit Aristide to serve out the remaining twenty-seven months of his presidential term.


Aristide returned on October 15, 1994, to serve out his term that ended in February, 1996. One of his first acts was to dismantle the troublesome Haitian military and replace it with a civilian police force. As promised during his exile, nine state-owned enterprises were privatized, and controls over customs duties and interest rates were lifted. These actions were taken to ease concerns of affluent Haitians. To please his mass support base, the minimum wage was doubled. When parliamentary elections were held in June, 1995, Aristide’s Lavalas Party won a sweeping victory. When presidential elections were held on December 17, 1995, Aristide’s vice president, René Préval, won 88 percent of the vote. Thus Haiti’s first democratic transition took place.

On November 26, 2000, with his Lavalas Family party (formed in 1996 after Aristide broke with Préval) firmly in control of parliament, Aristide registered as a candidate for Haiti’s next presidential election. However, claiming major irregularities in the unmonitored parliamentary elections, opposition parties boycotted the presidential elections. Although Aristide received more than 90 percent of the vote, voter turnout was low. For the next four years, both the parliament and the president were viewed by a significant number of Haitians as illegitimate.

Although a coup against Aristide failed in July, 2001, opposition to his rule mounted and violence once again became a daily aspect of Haitian political life. By February 29, 2004, a large rebel force moved toward Port-au-Prince, and Aristide and his wife left Haiti in an American plane escorted by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. An international peacekeeping force was sent in to try to maintain order. Democracy and stability were elusive as ever in Haiti. Haiti;government Elections;Haiti Democracy;Haiti

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dupuy, Alex. Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community, and Haiti. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Analysis of the struggle for democracy in Haiti by a leading scholar on the country. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffiths, Leslie. Aristide Factor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A major study and analysis of Aristide’s role in Haitian politics. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pezzullo, Ralph. Plunging into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Diplomacy. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007. Insider’s view of Haitian political struggles and U.S. diplomatic efforts at policy resolution. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History