A major and highly controversial figure in the modern history of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was born in Douyon in southern Haiti on July 15, 1953. After being orphaned as an infant, he was raised by the Society of Saint Frances de Sales (the Salesians), a Roman Catholic religious order.
Educated at Salesian schools, including the Collège Notre-Dame, from which he graduated with honors in 1974, he continued his education at a number of religious schools in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and elsewhere, and at the University of Haiti, before his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1982.
A gifted orator and organizer, he was especially influenced by liberation theology, a strand of Roman Catholicism that became prominent from the 1960s and emphasized issues of social justice and political activism in alleviating the poverty and oppression of the poor and marginalized. In 1983 he was appointed to a parish in a Port-au-Prince slum, where he worked in a medical clinic and a halfway house for street children.
His activism and charisma attracted a large following and helped him build a social base for his subsequent political career. In 1986 popular uprisings led to the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, creating a political opening Aristide would soon exploit. His fiery oratory and social radicalism alienated the church hierarchy, leading to his expulsion from the Salesian order in 1988.
In 1990 in the first genuinely democratic elections in Haitian history, Aristide captured the presidency with two-thirds of the popular vote. He called his supporters “Lavalas,” which translates from the Haitian Creole as “cleansing flood” or “avalanche.”
His first tenure as president lasted less than eight months—from his inauguration on February 7, 1991, to the military coup that ousted him on September 30. Going into exile in Venezuela and the United States, he was returned to power following a United States military intervention in 1994.
During the same year he renounced his priesthood, marrying United States citizen Mildred Trouillot two years later. Constitutionally barred from running in the elections of December 1995, won by Raoul Cédras, in 2000 he won a second term. Political gridlock followed, and after a long period of political unrest, he was overthrown in a military coup in February 2004 and compelled to leave the country.
From exile in South Africa he proclaimed himself the legitimate president of Haiti. Denounced by his opponents as a self-serving agitator who advocates violence in the pursuit of political power, and revered by his many supporters as the embodiment of the aspirations of Haiti’s poor and oppressed, he remains a polarizing and controversial figure in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.