Pascal-Trouillot, Ertha 1943–
Ertha Pascal-Trouillot 1943–
Former interim president of Haiti
Haiti is one of the most poverty-stricken nations in the Western Hemisphere, and its suffering peoples are notoriously ill-served by the whims of dictators and greedy military leaders. The task of bringing the island nation to a free democratic election without violence or bloodshed fell to Ertha Pascal-Trouillot in the early 1990s. As interim president of Haiti from 1990 until early 1991, Pascal-Trouillot presided over a country in which 85 percent of the population is illiterate and 80 percent earns less than $150 per year. Although plagued by charges of corruption and even the accusation of an engineered coup, the Pascal-Trouillot administration was able to orchestrate a relatively speedy election that was won by leftist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Essence magazine contributor William Strickland wrote: “Because previous efforts to hold elections in [recent eras] had led to one rigged charade, two military dictatorships and one wanton massacre, the task confronting Trouillot seemed daunting and potentially life-threatening. Nevertheless, despite attacks on her character and palpable resistance from supposed cohorts,… Trouillot—without the kind of popular support enjoyed by Jean-Bertrand Aristide or the mercenary support behind [private police leader] Roger Lafontant—overcame her difficulties to preside over an election on December 16, 1991, which was monitored by a thousand United Nations observers.” Strickland added: “The most miraculous achievement of this election day was that not a single instance of violence was reported. It was considered a stunning feat for a country whose history was steeped in bloodshed.”
Haiti, with a population of about six million, occupies the western third of the Caribbean island called Hispaniola. It was one of several lands visited by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World. At first the entire area was settled by Spanish colonists, but in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. The French colonists, who relied on black slave labor to run vast plantations, called their new country Saint Domingue.
It is estimated that power in the country was held by approximately 40,000 French aristocrats who owned six times that many slaves. The situation seemed ripe for rebellion, and in 1791 the slaves erupted, laying waste the plantations and slaughtering many of their owners. Battles raged for almost 15 years, but finally the former slaves—
Name is pronounced “air-ta pas-cal true-yohng”; born August 13, 1943, in Petionville, Haiti; daughter of Thimocles (an iron worker) and Louise (a seamstress; maiden name, Dumornay) Pascal; married Ernst Trouillot (an attorney and teacher), 1971 (died, 1987); children: Yantha (daughter). Education: Ecole de Droit des Gonaives, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, law degree, 1971.
Held various positions as a judge in federal courts in Haiti, 1975-88; named first woman justice to Haitian Supreme Court, 1988; inaugurated as interim president of Haiti, March 13, 1990; left office February 7, 1991, for duly elected president, Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Author of books on law, history, and the legal status of women.
Addresses: c/o Haitian Embassy, 2311 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20008.
led by black revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture and others—established independence and named the country Haiti.
Virtually from its birth on January 1, 1804, Haiti was torn by violent power struggles. Leaders backed by armed followers would seize power and hold it for a time, only to be overthrown by another military movement. As Paul Dean put it in the Los Angeles Times,“Unsophisticated, Haitians had no grounding in government beyond tribal ways and the legacies of white monarchists. Those with the most machetes won office. Haitian history became a 200-year skein of emperors, governors and presidents-for-life.”
One of these modern “presidents-for-life” was a provincial doctor named Francois Duvalier. Duvalier was elected president of Haiti on September 22, 1957, after a bloody nine-month power struggle. His followers called him “Papa Doc,” and many Haitians felt that he was sent by God to lead their nation. It is said, though, that Duvalier chose not to depend upon divine intervention to keep his presidency but instead contrived to have himself re-elected in 1961 and then declared president-for-life in 1964. He enforced his will by employing a private police force known as the Tontons Macoutes, a voodoo term that means “body snatchers.” Throughout Duvalier’s dictatorship, the Tontons Macoutes were known to use terrorist methods against the Haitian populace, shooting and torturing suspected political insurgents at will.
Pascal-Trouillot was a teenager when Duvalier took power. She was born August 13, 1943, the ninth of ten children of an iron worker and a seamstress. While she was still a youngster, her father died, and the family of ten had to subsist on what her mother and older siblings could earn. Pascal-Trouillot told Ms. magazine that her mother instilled in her the values of “morality, religion, duty to country, respect of family, and above all, work.”
Pascal-Trouillot rose to those high ideals by excelling in school. When she was ten, Duvalier opened the Lycee Francois Duvalier in Petionville, her hometown. She and her brother were able to attend, and there she received the equivalent of a high school education. She was helped in her studies by a lawyer and history teacher twenty-one years her senior named Ernst Trouillot. Trouillot taught the youngster history, and he tutored her in French—the language of the elite ruling class—an indispensable tool for upward mobility in Haitian society.
The relationship between Ernst Trouillot and Ertha Pascal was described in Ms. as similar to the union between fictional professor Henry Higgins and a working-class woman named Eliza Doolittle, whom Higgins taught to mingle with royalty. Ms. contributor Amy Wilentz wrote: “Ertha was the ideal Eliza Doolittle, intelligent and anxious to please. Having perfected her language, Ernst directed her away from her natural talents—which were scientific—toward his own literary and political interests.” Pascal-Trouillot told Ms. that her husband-to-be “oriented my career. I wanted to become a doctor, but then Ernst came along and suggested law. He was a great example to me.”
It is too simplistic, however, to portray Pascal-Trouillot as a puppet of an older, wiser man. Her sister, Ludmella Joseph, told Jet magazine that Pascal-Trouillot “is the very tough kid in the family. She is the youngest but always seemed like the oldest.” Pascal-Trouillot went to law school at Haiti’s Ecole de Droit des Gonaives and earned her degree in 1971. Shortly thereafter she married Trouillot, who had divorced his wife.
By the time she would assume the interim presidency in 1990, Pascal-Trouillot felt the need to assert that her reputation was like a “robe blanche, immaculee,” or a white immaculate dress. In doing so, she was addressing earlier charges that she had been a supporter of the Duvalier rulers, both father Francois and son, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), who was deposed in 1986. Pascal-Trouillot seems to have had little connection with the Duvaliers; in fact, one of her brothers was beaten into a state of permanent paralysis by the Tontons Macoutes. On the other hand, her husband earned state positions through support of the Duvaliers, and Pascal-Trouillot’s advancement can be tied to a certain degree to that of her husband. “Everything Ertha did in the professional realm, including her appointment to the Supreme Court, was helped along by her husband’s connections to the Duvaliers,” noted Wilentz. “Pascal-Trouillot is not known to be personally corrupt, [but] she went along with the system. She flattered some of Duvalier’s most offensive supporters, and her entire career depended on connections to people in power. She accepted her place as a judge within a judiciary that was corrupt to the core. Like many others, Pascal-Trouillot, with her personal rectitude, helped bolster an immoral state.”
These sentiments were not Wilentz’s alone. In the week following Pascal-Trouillot’s inauguration, ten people were killed in riots, and pamphlets were circulated linking her with the Duvaliers. Pascal-Trouillot has always defended her reputation and has maintained steadfastly that her career decisions were motivated by a concern for the welfare of the Haitian people and not by a desire to help engineer a comeback of Duvalier rule.
In 1988 Ertha Pascal-Trouillot became the first woman ever to sit on Haiti’s Supreme Court. By that time she was a widow with a young daughter and was an avowed feminist in a country where, even as late as the 1980s, women were regarded as “legal minors” and were not allowed to open bank accounts, buy property, or travel without the consent of their husbands. Any strides Pascal-Trouillot might have made for her Haitian sisters were rendered impossible by the nation’s unsettled political climate. In the four years before she took power, four different men ran Haiti. An attempt to hold an election in 1987 resulted in a bloody massacre of civilian voters by military forces and the Tontons Macoutes.
Yet another coup led to Pascal-Trouillot’s election, too. A week of civilian strikes and demonstrations early in 1990 resulted in the quick departure of Lieutenant General Prosper Avril, who had been running Haiti since 1988. Avril was briefly replaced by the army’s chief of staff, Major General Herard Abraham, but the violence continued. In a rare show of unity, twelve of Haiti’s political parties formed a group and tried to engineer a provisional government. The Haitian Constitution provided that the chief justice of the Supreme Court was next in line for the presidency, but the “Group of Twelve” rejected that candidate because of his ties to Avril. The civilian leaders implored Pascal-Trouillot to accept the position, and she did so.
At her inauguration on March 13, 1990, Pascal-Trouillot told her nation: “I accept this heavy task in the name of Haitian women.” She also vowed to implement democracy—without bloodshed—as hastily as possible. Pascal-Trouillot did not run the government singlehandedly, however. From the beginning she shared power with a committee that could overturn her decisions at will. The street violence ceased, the army seemed to support Pascal-Trouillot, and foreign aid again began to pour into the country.
Rumors also began to fly about the new president. She was accused—as were all her predecessors—of skimming profits from the national treasury. She was a target of the bitter Tontons Macoutes, and she and her daughter traveled in armored limousines with numerous bodyguards. Washington Post contributor Lee Hockstader observed: “Pascal-Trouillot, the fourth president [of Haiti] in as many years, was greeted by what seemed to be popular goodwill but she appears to have suffered from the same lack of voter-approved legitimacy that hindered her predecessors.”
Pascal-Trouillot’s role in the attempted coup against her government on January 6,1991, is still a matter of debate. The elections had been held, and Aristide was elected by a landslide. Strong opposition from certain military factions, though, plagued the election, and a month before Aristide’s swearing-in, Roger Lafontant, a former Duvalier security officer, allegedly broke into the presidential mansion and seized Pascal-Trouillot. Lafontant reportedly forced Pascal-Trouillot to read a statement over Haitian television naming him as new leader of the nation. She did so, and riots erupted everywhere. Lafontant was soon forced to flee, and the inauguration of Aristide went on as planned.
Almost as soon as he was in office, Aristide had Pascal-Trouillot arrested, claiming that she participated in the coup attempt willingly. From prison—and later from house arrest—Pascal-Trouillot denied the charges, maintaining that her daughter’s life had been threatened by Lafontant.
The incident was soon rendered inconsequential, though, because Aristide was overthrown on September 30, 1991, less than eight months after his inauguration. Since then Haiti has been plagued with violence between numerous factions vying for power. Foreign monetary aid has been discontinued, and the already desperate nation seems destined to undergo further privations and bloodshed.
For her part, Pascal-Trouillot—mother, lawyer, judge, and author of six books—neither asked for the presidency nor held onto it with any vigor. She saw her administration as an interim government from the beginning, and she swore in her successor less than a year after taking control herself. The future of Haiti rests in other hands now, hands that may not prove as capable as those of Ertha Pascal-Trouillot.
Abbott, Elizabeth, Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, the First Inside Account, McGraw, 1988.
Morse, Richard M.,editor, Haiti’s Future, Wilson, 1988. Wilentz, Amy, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Essence, June 1991.
Jet, April 2, 1990.
Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1990; June 3, 1990; April 21, 1991; February 10, 1992; March 18, 1992.
Ms., July-August 1990.
New Leader, March 19, 1990.
Newsday, April 5, 1991.
Newsweek, January 21, 1991.
New York Times, March 14, 1990; March 15, 1990; April 5, 1991; April 11, 1991.
Time, March 26, 1990; September 24, 1990; April 15, 1991.
Washington Post, March 13, 1990; May 31, 1990; April 5, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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