The Definition of Democracy

Louis Telcy, Divinity School student

Louis Telcy, Divinity School student

Photo: Jon Gardiner


At the age of fifteen, in an act of enterprising civic engagement, Louis Telcy founded the Association des Jeunes Progressistes (the Association of Progressive Youth) in his hometown of Cayes, Haiti. The AJP's primary function was to provide the sanitation services that the government didn't.

"Cayes was very poor," says Telcy, now a fourth-year student in the Divinity School. "The government neglected us. So we worked to keep the streets clean." Soon after its creation, though, the AJP turned political. When a Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide began campaigning for president in 1990, the progressive youths lent him their support, tacking up posters around town and encouraging people to vote.

Aristide won by a landslide, becoming the first democratically elected president of Haiti. But the victory was short-lived. Months later, the Haitian army staged a coup d'etat, overthrowing the president and terrorizing his many supporters. "It was a violent time for Haiti," says Telcy. "Hundreds of people died. But the evildoers were still claiming that there was democracy in Haiti."

One day in 1994, Raoul Cedras, the army general who ruled Haiti after the coup, gave a speech in which he asserted that he had returned democracy to the country. "This caused my heart to tremble," says Telcy. "I could not remain silent any longer." Through a contact he had at the radio station in Cayes, Telcy broadcast a rebuttal. He asked his listeners to think about the word "democracy" and what it truly means. "I said, 'Democracy is a form of government in which everyone has the right to speak out. If we do not know what the word means, then we should not use it.'"

Days later, Telcy received a call from a friend in the military, who told him that police were coming to arrest him. Telcy hung up the phone and started walking. "I didn't know where. I was just going." After three days, he could go no further. He went to sleep under some banana trees.

When Telcy woke up, a man was standing over him. "It was the owner of the property. He had a big knife. He asked me what I was doing there, and

I told him about my problem. So he contacted my parents, and they brought me some food."

Concerned for his safety, Telcy's parents called the headmaster of his school, who had a contact in the U.S. Embassy. "And right away, an agent came to get me," Telcy recalls. "They granted me political asylum and, two weeks later, I was in the U.S.A. This is how I survived."

Once in the U.S., though, he faced a new struggle. He couldn't speak English, and he didn't have a high-school diploma. "But," he says, "God had a plan for me, I knew."

Telcy took classes at a nearby high school to get his diploma. He worked the nightshift as a dishwasher at a Chili's. And, eventually, with the help of a United Methodist pastor in the area, he got into Warner Southern College, where he studied for the ministry and ran cross-country. "God was calling me to be a preacher," he says. "But I wanted to go to seminary first. When I found out about Duke, I decided, okay, I will apply there, and I will get in."

"People ask me if I will run for president [of Haiti] one day," Telcy says. "I just want to save democracy there.

A good leader doesn't say, 'I am going to run for president.' A good leader finds a way to help people. The people decide if he should be president."

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