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"A bridge which I call service"
Interview with Jean Bertrand Aristide
by Monte Leach

An interview with Jean Bertrand Aristide, former President of Haiti and Salesian priest, explaining the important connection between spirituality and its expression in practical service to others - in this case to the nation of Haiti. 

Jean Bertrand Aristide was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Salesian Order in 1982. He led a popular uprising against Haitian leader Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, and was expelled from his order in 1988. Aristide was elected President of Haiti in the country's first free and fair elections in 1990, but was deposed in a coup d'etat in 1991 and was in exile from 1991-1994. Once reinstated, Aristide remained President of Haiti until February 1996. Monte Leach interviewed him for Share International.

Share International: You are in a rather unique position having been a Catholic priest and also the leader of a country. How did your religious beliefs influence you to become a part of the political process, and then, once you were a political leader, how did they influence your decisions in that role?

Jean Bertrand Aristide: As a priest, as a Christian, I had to serve my people to be able to say that I was serving God. I had to love people to be able to say that I love God. We did what we had to do, because our faith was rooted in the gospel, where we see Jesus giving food to people, taking care of people who are sick. Serving the people, taking care of the poor, taking care of those who were sick was part of our mission, and we felt it was God we met through men and women.

Becoming President, we continued to serve. The mission of any head of state is to serve, public service. Serving people means respecting their rights, respecting the constitution -- as in the past as a priest you respected the Bible. (That doesn't mean the priest doesn't have to respect the constitution, of course.) When you invest in education, you create opportunities for people to be served. When you invest in health-care, you continue to do in the political field what the Christian or the priest can do in the religious field. Between both sides, the religious and political fields, there is a bridge which I call service.

SI: Your time of exile in the United States must have been a very difficult trial for you. Did you feel inspired or uplifted in some way by your faith and religious beliefs? Some political leaders have said that they have felt divinely inspired to help them make certain decisions. Have you ever felt inspired in some way through your experiences to continue?

JBA: I did, because I never stopped praying. I never stopped reading the Bible, which is a source of inspiration and spiritual energy. I was in communion with my people. When the refugees were leaving my country and some of them were dying, clearly I couldn't be indifferent. They are human beings. And being in communion with them was one way to empower me and overcome difficulties. We felt that to be united with all of them it was necessary to support their struggle, to share their suffering, always with non-violent means, and to fight for democracy and peace. As a Christian, I felt it would have been a social sin if I stopped this wonderful way of service through communion with my people. My faith clearly helped me. On both sides, theologically and politically, I had opportunities to be faithful, to serve, and to overcome difficulties.

SI: One of the other issues we deal with in our magazine is the economic situation in the world. The reason we are called Share International is our belief that we need to share the food and the resources of the world more equitably among rich and poor. What are your thoughts about that possibility, and about how we can help the poor in Haiti, and throughout the world, lift themselves out of poverty?

JBA: In Haiti, less than 1 per cent of the population controls 45 per cent of the national revenue. We have to build a bridge of dialogue between both sides, to see how to address the economic issues while not rejecting one group but rather welcoming everybody. We put the focus on both human development and economic growth, and we should do the same throughout the world. If we only put the focus on economic growth, we may see globalization creating job opportunities, but we don't see the solution that the poor are asking for. Their solution is not only the creation of some jobs; it's promoting human development and economic growth. That's why I think we have to promote economic growth to face economic problems. But at the same time, if we don't put the focus on human development throughout the world, we may see a kind of unbalanced economic reality. The more you promote human development, the more you have education and health care, the more you empower people to produce more and to improve economic life.

SI: And you believe that human development means education, health-care, the basics?

JBA: Yes, you care about values, and improve the quality of relationship between people. That empowers them to produce more and to promote economic growth. In Haiti we want to move from misery to 'poverty with dignity'. This is our goal. That means if today we have less than 1 per cent of the population controlling 45 per cent of the national revenue, we try to build a bridge between the two sides to create the conditions which are important in promoting human development and economic growth. Eighty-five per cent of the population in Haiti is illiterate. We have to invest in education. And to invest in education, the government has to collect taxes. We need to address those issues through dialogue. People have to understand what we want to do. And their participation is the key to peace.

SI: Are you hopeful about that occurring, not only in Haiti but around the world as well?

JBA: I am hopeful. I believe that the citizens of the world can make a difference. I believe that the citizens of the world can improve the quality of life, and build a peaceful world. This is my faith. I continue to give lectures in many countries -- Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, the United States, Costa Rica. I have met many people. Based on my experience, I believe in the citizens of the world. The world will become better.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005