Former Haiti President Leslie Manigat dead at 83

Former Haitian President Leslie Manigat, who took power in a controversial military-organized 1988 presidential election only to be ousted 4 ½ months later, would regularly ask visitors to his modest Port-au-Prince home, “Do Haitians really want change? Is Haiti prepared for change?”

It is a question that Manigat also quietly posed to himself as an author, historian and one of Haiti’s most prolific intellectuals and political scientists who helped mold foreign diplomats from Europe to the Caribbean to Latin America.

Manigat died Friday after a long illness, including a weeklong bout with chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus ravaging Haiti and the Caribbean, a representative of the family said. He was 83.

“He loved Haiti, and he always wanted Haiti to arrive on the route of progress, development and tolerance in politics,” said former Haitian Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, a friend of more than 60 years who had served as his foreign minister in the short-lived Manigat cabinet.

“This is a man who believed a lot in democracy even if he knew that democracy couldn’t function well in a country where there is a lot of illegality, poverty and ignorance,” Latortue said. “He believed in the intrinsic value of the individual, and he believed in the existence of political parties.”

Former first lady and presidential candidate Mirlande Hyppolite Manigat, who had tirelessly cared for her husband even while maintaining her high-profile role as an opposition leader, said she was devastated.

“I’ve suffered a huge loss,” she said in a brief interview from Port-au-Prince.

A former student of Manigat in Haiti, she became his second wife in 1970 after the two reconnected in Paris. She was getting her doctoral degree in political sciences, and he was living in exile in France, doing research and teaching.

Over the years, the two would become Haiti’s leading political power couple, supporting each other as each unsuccessfully sought after his short presidency to return to the presidential palace under the banner of the party Leslie Manigat created, the Assembly of Progressive National Democrats (Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes, or RDNP).

That unapologetic political support has often been the target of critics who begrudged Manigat’s participation in the 1988 presidential elections, which opponents said were rigged. He was also criticized for comments after he failed to advance in the 2006 presidential elections against René Préval, and his wife subsequently withdrew her candidacy for the Haitian Senate in the second round.

But unfettered by critics, they continued their support of each other. In 2011, as Mirlande Manigat prepared to face off with Haitian President Michel Martelly in a historic runoff, Leslie Manigat told the Miami Herald that he was purposefully keeping a low profile and had temporarily suspended his regular editorials on Haiti’s political dilemma so as to not become a distracting force in his wife’s campaign.

Those editorials, however, would never return. Soon after the elections, Manigat’s health began failing. Suddenly, the man who had penned several books and been an avid reader of mostly political science and foreign journals, reviews and nonfiction books, had little to say.

“Even though he was sick, you could still sense his frustrations with the country,” said Nesmy Manigat, a close cousin and Haiti education minister. “Even when he struggled to walk, he still symbolized one of Haiti’s big institutions. He is a man who inspired many generations to uncover the history of Haiti.”

Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe noted this also in his offering of condolences to the family. Manigat, he said, had “long contributed to the training of several generations of Haitians and enhanced national pride.”

“With his passing goes a whole era of Caribbean-wide history,” said Anthony Maingot, a retired Florida International University professor whose forthcoming book, Race, Ideology and the Decline of Caribbean Marxism, will focus on Manigat’s rise and fall.

Leslie François Manigat was born in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 16, 1930, into a middle-class family, whose origins were from northern Haiti. His father, François Saint Surin Manigat, was a secondary math teacher, and his mother, Haydée, taught primary school.

“I come from a family whose tradition has been to give the country educators and politicians,” Manigat said in a 1988 Miami Herald interview shortly after coming to power on Jan. 17.

His grandfather, François Manigat, was a general and presidential candidate. He was exiled as ambassador to France in the late 1800s and died there.

In 1949, Manigat would himself go to Paris on a scholarship to study political science. He returned to Haiti in 1953 and joined the foreign ministry.

He told the Herald that he was an early supporter of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and voted for him as president in 1957. His break with Duvalier came in 1960 after Duvalier arrived in a jeep, wearing a helmet and carrying a rifle, to close down the university and fire all the directors because of a student strike.

Duvalier had suspected the influential Manigat of instigating the strike —a claim Manigat had always denied — and jailed him in the National Penitentiary in January 1961. Before his Feb. 23, 1961, release, Manigat had refused several offers to go into exile. He finally went into the Argentine Embassy on April 26, 1963, and left Haiti a month later under Argentine protection.

His first year-and-a-half of his exile was spent at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He then went to Paris to teach and research.

Wanting to be closer to Haiti, Manigat moved to Trinidad in 1974. He became director of the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies campus. Among his students: the current head of the United Nations Peackeeping Stabilization Mission in Haiti, Sandra Honoré; and Colin Granderson, the assistant secretary general of the 15-member Caribbean Community, Caricom.

Over the years, both have spoken fondly of their former professor, who is also survived by five daughters.

After four years in Trinidad, Manigat moved to Simon Bolivar University in Caracas where he taught political science. He was a leading advocate for Haiti to develop closer ties with Venezuela, and African nations.

“He believed in external cooperation,” said Latortue. “Haiti had something to contribute.”

Latortue said while historians will debate Manigat’s political legacy, he believes that Manigat would have changed the trajectory of Haitian politics had he been allowed to complete his five year-term.

“He was not into corruption, he didn’t believe government is where you come to make money. He had a vision for Haiti,” Latortue said. “Government was poor, and it should not act like it was rich.

“Maybe now that he is gone, people will finally see what he always used to say, and they will do what he always wanted to do for Haiti.”