Voodoo spirits get credit for Aristide's flight
By Marcus Warren in Port-au-Prince
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide did not flee Haiti because he lost his nerve. Neither did the United States blackmail him. No, the most satisfying explanation for the country's recent upheavals is that the spirits were offended and taking their revenge.
Voodoo, an exotic synthesis of African, Caribbean and Roman Catholic beliefs, with freemasonry mixed in too, pervades every facet of life in Haiti, so its role in the downfall of Mr Aristide is, for most, beyond dispute.
Just as its flags, murals, shrines, rum, rattles and images of madonnas and saints lurk, invisible from the outside, in slum temples, the religion underlies each momentous event in the nation's history.
The rise and fall of Mr Aristide, its first democratically elected leader and an ordained Catholic priest who adopted as his symbol the cockerel, a voodoo icon, illustrates this. Mr Aristide, whose library contained many books on the national religion, was guilty of the voodoo equivalent of hubris and then struck down by its version of nemesis, several voodo priests said this week.
Comparing himself to the heroes who won Haiti's slaves freedom from the French two centuries ago was a fatal mistake, they said, one that the heroes, by now spirits themselves, punished.
He has yet to learn his lesson. Even from his African exile he was still quoting Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a giant of the struggle for liberty, complaining, that his enemies "had chopped down the tree of peace".
Desperate to cling on to power, he also dabbled in what voodoo priests and priestesses called sorcery and the black arts, very different from the benign voodoo they claim to practise.
The priests and priestesses were still reluctant to mention the president by name, but their disapproval shone through their careful choice of words. "There are some sacrifices that when you make them you pay for them very fast," said one of Haiti's best known priestesses, Gladys Maitre.
Another, a designer of beautiful, sequined voodoo flags, suggested that the normal contract between man and spirits had, in Mr Aristide's case, been broken.
"Some of the spirits are like politicians," said Silva Joseph. "They want something from you but they don't ask for it. And they perform a service for you to keep you in their power." Perhaps it was finally over for Mr Aristide, not when the Americans persuaded him to step down and flee the country last weekend, but a few days earlier, when Sister Ann, his voodoo priestess, left.
Whatever the immediate cause of Mr Aristide's departure, it provoked a hair-raising outburst of violence and bloodletting on the streets. Here too, voodoo was everywhere.
With the capital in the grip of armed gangs of looters, my guide through the mayhem, a former New York banker who is also a voodoo priest, wrapped a red scarf around our rear-view mirror.
An evil spirit had crossed our path and we were at even more risk than the time when a thug had pointed a pump-action shotgun at the car, Jean-Daniel Lafontant told me later. Mercifully, the scarf's magic seemed to work.
"Don't go down there," a voodoo sister, whispered at us the next day as we debated whether to venture into one of the most dangerous slums. We took her advice.