April 9-22, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 7
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Pituitary Center brings life-changing treatment to thousands
Student health insurance plan
Headlines @ U.Va.
U.Va. marks the 261st birthday of its founder — Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals in Architecture an Law
Aerospace institute becoming a reality in Hampton
Online applications aid admissions process
Fatton: No ray of hope for native Haiti
Grossman enters new world of responsibility
Women’s Center to honor Arizona’s trailblazing Gov. Janet Napolitano
Artist explores DNA and difference in
‘ Jefferson Suites’
Nobel Prize-winning poet
Seamus Heaney to read April 19
Roaming Rome, Wylie focuses on material and light
Fatton: No ray of hope for native Haiti
Supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
EPA/Marcel Mettelsiefen
Supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide march in the Bel-Air district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on March 11.

By Elizabeth Kiem

Robert Fatton Jr.
Robert Fatton Jr.

Robert Fatton Jr. is much in demand these days. For the past two months, the armed revolt that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power has kept Haitian politics in the headlines worldwide. Fatton, the Haitian-born chairman of U.Va.’s Department of Politics, is regularly quoted under those headlines. On a typical day last month, his views could be found in dispatches from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Irish Times, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., National Public Radio and Reuters.

“I don’t think it’s that they like me so much,” joked Fatton about being courted by the media. “But there are not very many [Haiti scholars]. You can count them on two hands.”

Fatton said that attention to Haiti in the press is crisis-driven, as is the U.S. government’s interest in the country. But while he makes himself available for the media, Fatton says he feels his expertise is less appreciated by Washington policy-makers.

“Those are irrelevant consultations,” he said of meetings with the Bush administration’s point-men on Haitian affairs, who are famously conservative and anti-Aristide. Fatton said he would have advised U.S. officials to seek more compromises from the opposition in Haiti before assisting in Aristide’s removal from the country.

He said the ouster of the populist priest Aristide and his replacement by a nonpartisan government, headed by technocrat Gerard Latortue, is unlikely to change Haiti’s fortune. Without more reliable commitment and financial assistance from the international community, he said, there is little chance for Haiti to overcome its poverty and political instability.

Moreover, Fatton is emphatic in his belief that the majority of Haitians still support Aristide, despite the broken promises and corruption associated with his administration.

“The very poor don’t recognize themselves in the opposition. … I wouldn’t want to be in the position of the prime minister,” he said.
As expressed in his 2002 book, “Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy,” Fatton’s outlook for his homeland is bleak.

“When you look at Haiti, you have a political crisis, you have an economic disaster and an ecological catastrophe. Then you have a moral crisis. All of them are linked to each other … so [overcoming these problems is] a huge task.”

Fatton was raised among the Haitian intellectual elite during the successive dictatorships of Francois Duvalier and son, Jean-Paul. He recalled a sense of security during his youth, interrupted by bouts of political upheaval, during which his family left the country to live in Europe. His parents, now retired, are living in Haiti, but Fatton long ago chose to become a member of the “diaspo.”

“It’s not the lifestyle I would want,” he said of his decision not to live in Haiti, with its stark demarcation of classes, and where the elite now employ private security and erect physical barriers against the impoverished majority.

“If I wanted to go to the places I used to go 30 years ago, I would be a dead man,” he said. But, he added, the police state of the Duvalier reign was equally unpalatable.

“I always felt absolutely disgusted. That’s why I left. I can’t cope with the social structure. It’s something that to me is repugnant.”

Fatton left Haiti permanently in 1973. After studying at the University of Paris, he enrolled in Goshen College in Indiana and then received a Ph.D. from Notre Dame. U.Va. offered him a teaching position in 1981, and he became department chairman in 1996.

In addition to his study of Haiti, Fatton is well known for his scholarship as an Africanist. He has written about civil society in Senegal and South Africa and draws many comparisons between the restive socio-political climates of Haiti and many African nations.

Fatton noted that even as Haiti struggles through another political power struggle, the republic is celebrating its bicentennial. He said the leaders of the 1804 revolt against the French are in part responsible for the country’s history of authoritarianism.

“Those fellows, whatever their greatness in terms of being slaves and rising up against the slave owners, were nonetheless extremely authoritarian and saw themselves as messianic figures. That’s very much what you have now.”

Fatton is married to Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton, a professor of African and Caribbean religions at U.Va. They have a young son, Luke, for whom Fatton has great ambitions.

“When he was born, I put a soccer ball next to him,” said the self-described “soccer nut.”

He said his passion for the great Latin pastime dates from the day in 1974 when, as a rookie sportscaster, he called the winning game that qualified Haiti for the World Cup.

“It was carnivale for three days in December,” he recalled.
Fatton plans to step down from chairmanship of his department this summer and take a yearlong sabbatical to complete a new book. He said he is looking forward to handing over the administrative responsibilities to his colleague Sidney Milkis, the James Hart Professor of Politics.

“I’m not keeping the Haitian tradition of trying to be a leader for life,” he said with a laugh. 


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