Posted on March 24, 2011


Aristide Returns (The Nation)

20 March 2011 Comments: 0

By Dan Cough­lin, the Nation

For­mer Pres­i­dent Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s tri­umphant return to Haiti after seven years of forced exile in South Africa sig­nals a new stage in the Caribbean country’s pop­u­lar and demo­c­ra­tic strug­gle just as a resur­gent right wing pre­pares to lay elec­toral claim—for the first time ever—to the country’s pres­i­dency in a con­tro­ver­sial US-backed pres­i­den­tial poll on Sunday.

“Today may the Hait­ian peo­ple mark the end of exile and coup d’état, while peace­fully we must move from social exclu­sion to social inclu­sion,” said Aris­tide, refer­ring to the bloody 2004 US-backed coup, the sec­ond time he was dri­ven from power after being elected with huge pop­u­lar majorities.

Aristide’s return comes at a key turn­ing point in the country’s his­tory. Bol­stered by a 14,000-strong UN mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion known as MINUSTAH, and mas­sive inter­na­tional aid fol­low­ing the Jan­u­ary 2010 earth­quake, Haiti’s tiny right-wing elite have become stronger, eco­nom­i­cally and polit­i­cally, than at any time in the last twenty-five years.

This has been dra­mat­i­cally under­scored by the return of for­mer dic­ta­tor Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duva­lier from France ear­lier this year and an openly fraud­u­lent elec­toral process that has barred Haiti’s most pop­u­lar polit­i­cal party —Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas—from par­tic­i­pa­tion and put forth two right-wing candidates.

Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, 50, a pop­u­lar konpa musi­cian, faces off against Mir­lande Mani­gat, 70, the wife, and some say sur­ro­gate, of a for­mer right-wing pres­i­dent. Both can­di­dates backed the 1991 and the 2004 coups against Aris­tide and sup­port the return of the Hait­ian army, which Aris­tide dis­banded in 1995.

“The inter­na­tional com­mu­nity is impos­ing their will, using the guns of the UN troops, to impose two very right-wing can­di­dates with Duva­lierist ele­ments on the Hait­ian peo­ple,” noted Pierre Labossière of the San Francisco-based Haiti Action Committee.

Aristide’s return, which threat­ens the resur­gent neo-Duvalierist move­ment and rep­re­sents a vic­tory for the pop­u­lar move­ment, changes the polit­i­cal equa­tion, accord­ing to many grass­roots activists.

The extent of Aristide’s influ­ence is clear from recently released Wik­ileaks cables.

A June 2005 State Depart­ment cable describes the US and Brazil­ian gov­ern­ments agree­ing “that all efforts must be made to keep Aris­tide from return­ing to Haiti or influ­enc­ing the polit­i­cal process.” In another just released 2005 cable, US and French diplo­mats threat­ened to block South Africa’s seat­ing on the UN Secu­rity Coun­cil unless South African Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki man­aged to keep Aris­tide in exile there.

The French said Aristide’s return would be “cat­a­strophic” and even plot­ted to hin­der Aris­tide in the logis­tics of reach­ing Haiti by air from South Africa.

“There has been a polit­i­cal vac­uum at all lev­els since the absence of Aris­tide and espe­cially since Jan­u­ary 12 [2010 earth­quake],” said Yves Pierre Louis, the Port-au-Prince bureau chief of Haiti Lib­erté, a left-wing weekly news­pa­per. “Aristide’s pres­ence alone will be like a serum. It will revi­tal­ize the pop­u­lar move­ment and the strug­gle against occu­pa­tion and neo-liberalism.”

“Aris­tide can’t phys­i­cally lead the fight against the MINUSTAH. But at least we’ll have some­body who can talk for us,” said 38-year-old Basil Gilène, stand­ing in front of eight heav­ily armed Brazil­ian sol­diers in Bel Air, one of the pop­u­lar neigh­bor­hoods of Port-au-Prince. “The money they spend for the mess they call elec­tions would have been bet­ter spent for hous­ing for the peo­ple liv­ing in tents on the Champ Mars [in down­town Port-au-Prince] or to rebuild homes in [the hard-hit neigh­bor­hood of] Fort National. But instead we see it spent on worth­less elections.”

While many grass­roots activists wel­come Aristide’s return, oth­ers cau­tion that elec­toral pol­i­tics and a focus on indi­vid­ual lead­er­ship has seri­ous limits.

Out­side her teem­ing neigh­bor­hood health clinic in Car­refour Feuille, amid earth­quake rub­ble, young teenagers putting on “Wel­come Home” Aris­tide T-shirts, and mar­ket women sell­ing US AID food aid, com­mu­nity health activist Rosy Auguste notes the dif­fi­cul­ties and mis­takes that the pop­u­lar and demo­c­ra­tic move­ment has made over the last twenty-five years.

Lead­ers of pop­u­lar orga­ni­za­tions have been forced to move abroad, grass­roots groups failed to edu­cate younger gen­er­a­tions on the hor­rors of Duva­lierism and the dom­i­nant role of inter­na­tional actors in Hait­ian soci­ety con­tin­ues unabated, says Auguste.

“It is for sure that the big coun­tries have had a big weight in the coun­try and that didn’t begin on Jan­u­ary 12 with the huge increase in vol­ume of NGOs in the coun­try,” observes Auguste. “What will change this real­ity of Haiti, and the inter­na­tional role, is the mobi­liza­tions in the neigh­bor­hoods and the pop­u­lar orga­ni­za­tions to con­struct a stronger and more account­able Hait­ian state.”

One out­come seems cer­tain, though: Aristide’s return will inject new energy into many parts of the pop­u­lar and demo­c­ra­tic move­ments, whose par­ti­sans had begun to despair that their inspi­ra­tional sym­bol would never return.

“We in the pop­u­lar masses, since [the] Jan­u­ary 12 [earth­quake], we have never found any­body who can get us out of the tents we are under,” said 29-year-old Guil­laume Joseph, stand­ing on a street cor­ner with an unex­ca­vated quake-collapsed build­ing next to him. “When you see the mis­ery the peo­ple are liv­ing in, the prob­lem we have is we need a leader and that leader is Aris­tide. The elec­tions are non­sense, whether it’s Martelly or Mani­gat, they are both putschists.”