Ertha Pascal-Trouillot: Unsung heroine of democracy

1990 meeting: President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, left, meets with former U.S President Jimmy Carter on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1990 at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. Carter came to Haiti as an observer for the Dec. 16 national elections. AP Photo/Scott Apple1990 meeting: President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, left, meets with former U.S President Jimmy Carter on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1990 at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. Carter came to Haiti as an observer for the Dec. 16 national elections. AP Photo/Scott Apple

It is not ironic that a country like Haiti, historically mired in strong-man culture, may have had its only moment of structured rationality and governance under the leadership of a woman.

In fact, in the years following the ouster of the Duvalier regime, one can say that the death of Haiti’s nascent democracy commenced precisely at the moment of the illegal and authoritarian arrest of Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, provisional President and Supreme Court Judge, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainAt the time of Aristide’s ascent to the presidency, I, like many Haitians, was filled with anger toward the Duvaliers and became enthralled with the idea of having a “peoples’ democrat” (Aristide) as Haiti’s president. At the moment of his inauguration speech, the writing was already on the wall, but we were all so drunk with people power that we completely overlooked the making of another authoritarian leader who was widely and constitutionally elected by the people.

The story of Pascal-Trouillot’s arrest is one of treachery and suspicion, which unfortunately is not surprising given Haiti’s sometimes disorderly past.

As someone who grew up with nine other siblings, Pascal-Trouillot knew how to make her voice heard without being loud. Despite growing up in a country where women were legally treated like children, she, at the suggestion of her mentor and future husband, went on to study law. She instinctively knew that education, honesty, and hard work would be her salvation.

After graduating from law school in 1971, Pascal-Trouillot held various judicial positions in Haiti’s highest court and became the first woman to serve as a civil court judge in 1980. She became the first woman chief justice in 1988. And two years later, by unanimous consent of the Council, she became the first woman president of Haiti.

In 1990, with no ambition of holding on to executive control like the military men that preceded her as provisional president, Pascal-Trouillot oversaw the coordination of the most successful democratic electoral and constitutional transition that the country had ever witnessed. Haiti’s first truly free and non-violent elections were held on December 16, 1990. The street violence that the country had experienced in the years post-Duvalier amazingly stopped, and the army as well as the international community recognized and respected her legitimacy as an honest transitional broker.

Haiti is a country that has never experienced a real separation of powers, and so fittingly, many grew suspicious of Pascal-Trouillot, especially as a campaign of de-macoutization and de-duvalierization was afoot. Those who saw themselves as revolutionaries, as being representative of the sovereign people (lepèp souvren), were distrustful of anyone who had worked under the Duvalier regime. This included Pascal-Trouillot, who served as a judge under the Duvaliers.

Leaflets began to appear in the capital denouncing her as a Duvalierist, and hence corrupt, despite the fact that she had a clean record. Of course, it was also not to her advantage that her husband, a scholarly lawyer, Jean-Jacques Dessalines Ernst Trouillot, was alleged to have been a benefactor of the regime. Interestingly, it was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the person who greatly benefited from her leadership who happened to be the one who most wanted to destroy her.

On the evening of January 6, 1991, barely a month after Aristide had won the election in a landslide, Roger Lafontant, the former Interior Minister under Baby Doc, was completely dissatisfied with the outcome of the election and had hatched a military coup against Pascal-Trouillot in order to preempt Aristide from taking office on the 7th of February. With gunshots ringing throughout the greater Port-au-Prince area, several soldiers went to the President’s house and forcefully demanded her presence at the National Palace. Despite the forceful demands of the plotters and the prepared letter that Lafontant was pressed to read, she remained calm and made sure to declare that she was being forced to relinquish power instead of declaring that she had given up her role as president. As a jurist and a writer, words mattered to her and she did not want to be trapped under Lafontant’s gun. Lafontant’s coup attempt later failed however, and Pascal-Trouillot continued to lead the country with dignity.

Aristide, on the day of his inauguration, handed Ertha Pascal-Trouillot a house arrest order stating that she was under investigation for corruption. He later charged her of conspiracy in Lafontant’s attempted coup d’état. There was no investigation, no court proceedings, and no judicial ruling. The new “democrat” became the executor, judge and legislator who gave himself the authority to command the arrest of a former President in the absence of protocol and in violation of the Constitution. President George H.W. Bush, displeased with his actions, called President Aristide and did not measure his words. Pascal-Trouillot was released the following day.

It is unfortunate that some 20 years later Haiti still has not achieved democracy and worse still, that those who have been elected democratically continually fail to uphold the fundamental demands of the constitution. It is far too common that strong-man politics supports the ambitions of autocratic rulers and that those who try to uphold the law are often sabotaged at their hands. Often, vengeance supersedes rationality and legal rules.