Former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti this morning after a seven-year period of exile in South Africa. Speaking at the airport in the Haitian capital, Port au Prince, Aristide used the French, Spanish, English and Zulu languages to address the crowd. Zulu was a gesture of gratitude to his former South African hosts whose President, Jacob Zuma, is a Zulu speaker. Aristide had been studied African languages while in exile.
Aristide did not comment directly on the flawed general elections in Haiti, the second round of which is due to take place this Sunday, March 20. Instead he focused on the need to replace "exclusion" of the mass of the Haitian poor with "inclusion" through educational and economic improvements. "Today there are not even two doctors per 11 thousand Haitians; that is the result of exclusion...Haiti lives in extreme poverty, hunger, unemployment, drugs and injustice and exclusion."
He made a point of thanking Cuba for its solidarity work after last year's earthquake in the Puerto Prince area, which killed 300,000 people, and the current cholera epidemic, which has killed another 4,000.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, had been a strong critic of the brutal dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who has also returned to Haiti after a long exile in France. Aristide was elected president in 1991, but was almost immediately overthrown by the Duvalierist military, which proceeded to massacre thousands of poor Aristide supporters.
In 1994, Aristide obtained the armed support of the Clinton administration to return him to Haiti, in exchange for which he accepted most of the "Washington Consensus" plan of "free trade" (which, in practice, meant eliminating import tariffs on U.S. taxpayer subsidized rice and other imports), privatization and austerity. As a result, thousands of Haitian farmers were driven off the land because they could not compete with U.S. imports, while American rice producers, based in Clinton's home state of Arkansas, reaped a bonanza.
Aristide did succeed in abolishing the army, which had been such a source of instability and human rights abuses in the past. After a period out of power, Aristide was elected again in 2001, with the support of militant poor people's organizations that sometimes constituted themselves as armed militias to fight against the rich and against Aristide's opponents.
In 2004, he was overthrown again by violent right-wing gangs supported by the Bush administration and the French government. Aristide accuses the United States of being directly involved in his overthrow. France was angry with Aristide for demanding reparations for money that France had extorted from Haiti in the 19th and 20th centuries, and thus is seen to have connived in the coup.
Since then there has been a UN peacekeeping contingent in Haiti, which itself has become controversial because of clashes with poor Haitians. Aristide's enemies and the Bush administration made accusations against Aristide of corruption and abuse of power, but his supporters see this as mere propaganda.
Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, very popular among poor Haitians, was excluded from the elections under the pretext of a technicality. As a result, there was to be a runoff between Merlande Manigat, a right-wing candidate with Duvalierist connections, and Jude Celestin, the candidate of the Inte (Unity) party of President Rene Preval. However, the elections were deeply flawed and the United States, Canada and France pressured Preval's government to push Celestin out of the runoff, and instead permit Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, another Duvalierist who has promised to restore the army, to run against Manigat in the runoff. Martelly, who is a popular singer, has pulled ahead of Manigat in the polls.
The United States had been trying to pressure South Africa into keeping Aristide out of Haiti until after the elections. This was the topic of a last minute phone call by President Obama to President Zuma of South Africa yesterday. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had also asked for South Africa to block Aristide's return The South African Foreign Ministry angrily retorted that his country would have no part in "holding [Aristide] hostage" and facilitated his flight to Haiti, in which Aristide was accompanied by his U.S. lawyer, Ira Kurzbahn, and actor Danny Glover.
Aristide may have timed the trip because no matter who wins the election, they would be likely to take action to prevent his return, by cancelling his passport (given to him by the current government headed by Rene Preval) or other means, perhaps including violence.
So perhaps it was now or never.