Whose man is in Haiti? He was 40ish, of medium height, powerfully built on the way to being stout, and with an obvious gift of speech—he overrode his listeners, particularly since they were in their early and late 20’s. He was Leslie Manigat, the place was Caracas, and I was a guest lecturer and full-time participant at the two-week conference of the young Christian-Democrat and Christian-Socialist militants from all of South and Central America. I never believed in Christian-whatever political parties, as in time the first adjective wears off and the second turns aggressive: socialist, democrat, liberal, Marxist, national, what have you. But there we were, guests in one of the headquarters of the Christian-Democratic party of Venezuela’s President Caldera. The delegates, about 25 of them, were brilliant and politically cultured, with their hearts in militancy and Christ’s kingdom.

The time is also interesting to specify: early July 1973, just two months away from the fall of AUende, the idol of most participants, especially of the charming Marxist Catholic from Chile, the youngest of the group and the most fervent to convert me to his political creed. Don’t even try, I said. I had been to Chile in 1966, the Jesuits were redder than Lenin, and President Eduardo Frei counted himself, with Maritain and Saul Alinsky (!), as the last revolutionary. From the start, the Caracas gathering struck a decidedly leftist note: Marxism was the paradigm and Christianity the veneer. Although we discussed “models of society” (my book on Utopia/Heresy had just been published in Spanish, hence the invitation), it was obvious that a certain model was the main dish, identifiably closer to the Cuban reality than to the Colombian or the Venezuelan. The general attitude of the gathering favored socialism, the kind that the Sandinistas were to propagandize before and after they reached power. In short, it was a socialism of the glasnost type. It was obvious that my young friends regarded their own parties as the antechamber of tougher things to come; the permanent dream of Christian leftists was about cooperation with the Marxists. (A formula also known as liberation theology.)

Manigat and I got along famously—he is a charming, intelligent man with a notable political intelligence, and with the kind of outlook Latin American academics cultivate (which is no guarantee that, eventually in power, they would practice what they had preached). Manigat had also taught since he had been a professor at Nanterre, the post-1968 enfant terrible of French universities, more radical than a party school. He was self-exiled from Haiti, although he avoided mentioning anything of his association or non-association with the Duvalier family.

At the time, my nutshell impression of Leslie Manigat was the following: a smart operator with a powerful ambition to play a political role, a born party leader or at least high official, the kind of which cabinet ministers are made in the Caribbean. These features, then, did not make Manigat very different from many regional intellectuals in an era of political upheavals and changes of fortune. The surroundings underlined these impressions. “Christian- Socialism” was trumpeted everywhere in our discussions, in the news of the day, in the comments of these lively young men, even on the walls where leftist/Catholic posters formed the, decor. Jacques Maritain, a great Thomist but a political chameleon, predominated as a cult-figure—with Fr. Teilhard de Chardin a close second (also well able to serve many political visions, all of them unreal and Utopian). Strange, there were no posters of the pope, who at the time was Paul VI, author of the left-leaning encyclical Populorum Progressio and a Maritain admirer.

So much for the emblematic figures under which the congress was held. The enemies were also represented: the Yankees, capitalism, military juntas (what a blow the takeover by Pinochet was to be!), and social democracy. The only good foreigners were the West German CDU (Christian Democratic Union), which evidently footed the bill for various activities and campaigns. (The Germans fell into the same error as John F. Kennedy a decade earlier when he had counted on the continent’s Christian-Democratic/Socialist parties to consolidate the local economic and political situation. It was a German suggestion to invite the Jesuit scholar Gustav Wetter, author of a thorough study of dialectical materialism [“diamat”] to come to Caracas for a lecture. He, however, could not show up.)

The debates focused on models of society, and my opposition to Utopian models came under heavy criticism. It was clear to the some 25 young men, plus Leslie Manigat, the dean of the group, that my “model” was directed mainly against Marxists and Christian-leftists. Manigat argued well and cogently, and seemed to dislike Castro’s regime, while attaching hopes to Allende’s. In this too he was similar to so many South American intellectuals, labor leaders, and priests. Yet my impression was and is still that he is too much of a bon vivant to embrace the Sandinistas. Also, he seems to be a man ready for compromise.

Those who blame him now for participation in the “farcical” elections are armchair do-gooders, ignorant of the Caribbean. Once, after a public lecture at Villanova University, a young refugee from Nicaragua asked me what his nation ought to do to achieve peace and order. “Pray for a good dictator,” I answered, convinced ‘hat democracy has hardly a chance south of the Rio Grande—or off the coast of Florida. On this issue, Manigat and I agreed, and I am sure he aims at becoming a “good dictator” of Haiti, an improvement over the Duvaliers and even over General Namphy. His nation’s chaotic traditions and social structure will not allow him to become a democratic president.

Much will depend on Washington’s policy. Haiti is not Nicaragua, and Manigat is not Ortega. He is intelligent enough to want to cultivate his U.S. contacts and his links with Canada, where many Haitians live whose financial support and trust in Haiti’s future should work to keep Manigat away from political adventures. Ties with the Vatican and Bonn will also be stabilizing factors. All told, and this may be a sign for coming events, in those two weeks in Caracas, Manigat was a moderating element vis-à-vis the hotheads around the discussion table.