Aristide’s Return and WikiLeaks: When Will the US Finally Change Course on Haiti?

Disclaimer: I write bland headlines. But hopefully you’ll find the post itself worth your while. I’ll add links tomorrow. It’s late and I need to get home!

“President Rene Preval made reference to these rumors, telling the Ambassador that he did not want Aristide ‘anywhere in the hemisphere.’” That was in 2008, according to a secret American cable from the Wikileaks cache released today, when rumors swirled about Preval’s predecessor, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his possible passage to Venezuela.

The rumors, which began circulating again with ever-stronger intensity in the past month, finally were put to rest today.

Aristide ended a seven-year-long exile. He arrived in Haiti by private plane, gave a heartwarming speech about love and exclusion in four languages including Zulu, and headed to his mansion with his family amidst a jostling crowd of overjoyed supporters that stretched down the road surrounding his convoy.

A single smoke bomb to disperse the crowd? Nothing doing. People promptly gave each other lifts over the Aristide compounds’s newly-cleaned 13-foot-high walls. A middle-aged guy boosted me up and I clambered over.

We waited for Aristide to emerge again, some eating mangos off trees and lounging about the pool to bide their time, but he stayed inside. He’ll probably have more to say soon. When he does, many will listen, much to chagrin of his detractors, who say he tolerated corruption and violent crimes as President.

One of them is a certain Michel Martelly, a leading presidential candidate in Sunday’s runoff election, who can be seen strutting about a nightclub in a video posted on YouTube recently, saying “I would kill Aristide to stick a dick up your ass” and calling Aristide supporters “faggots.”

Martelly has been drawing huge crowds and many presume he’s handily winning the race against a less aggressive right-wing rival. But today I heard a young man remark that he’s “falling in shit.” I stifled a laugh (and a cough, as we marched through the dusty, trash-strewn streets along Aristide’s convoy).

Longtime Haitian political observer Patrick Elie, who served in the governments of Aristide and Preval, was a bit more nuanced: “These elections are going to give a president who has no legitimacy and who will be the puppet of the international community, especially now with the reconstruction.”

“I believe that his return is going to expose politicians that are on the scene and show that, as far as the Haitian people care concerned, they don’t count for much,” he told me.

So to will Rene Preval, the outgoing president, who remains a question mark until he leaves office. He hardly talks to the citizenry, and seems to have lost all standing due to the halting recovery from last year’s earthquake. Why the 180-degree reversal from three years ago? Why did his government renew Aristide’s passport last month and allow him back to Haiti now, ignoring American pressure?

Is it his answer to the obvious question, as Haitian musician Wyclef Jean posed it to me, “[Jean-Claude] Duvalier came back to the country. Why can’t Aristide, you know?” Or is it a final middle finger to the international community for proposing he flee into exile the day of the election, then successfully pressing for the ejection of his favored presidential candidate due to alleged fraud? (Martelly took his spot.)

We don’t know yet. But thanks to a slew of new US cables, obtained by Wikileaks and posted today to coincide with Aristide’s return by a Norwegian newspaper at my suggestion, we do have an unprecedented inside look at the heavy, petulant hand of American policy that thrust Aristide into exile, then silenced and kept him there over seven years. US opposition to Aristde was so strong that it had small governments in its hemispheric backyard, including Haiti’s own under Preval, mostly cowering in its shadow.

Ministers and heads of State, from the Jamaica to the Bahamas, who failed to step in line and offer full support for the removal of Aristide from Haitian political life, are variously “reminded” of American policy on Haiti. The Dominican President Lionel Fernandez was “pulled aside at a social event” by the US Ambassador for a stern talking-to after Fernandez said Aristide enjoyed “great popular support” and called for his inclusion in Haiti’s democracy. Brazil and South Africa agreed, we know, to limit Aristide’s ability to speak out from abroad. That’s not all.

This makes Aristide’s return by plane today, which detoured through Senegal to re-fuel, all the more remarkable. Indeed, when I arrived at the airport ahead of his landing, the ecstatic crowd was nowhere to be found. Toussaint Jean was one of just a few guys leaning against the fence, who left his house in Carrefour Feuilles, one where passionate Martelly supporters predominate.

Photo by Haitian journalist Jean Restil Jean Baptiste

“The mass of people haven’t really mobilized because for three days they’ve been saying he’s coming, but the Americans are putting pressure, and [we think] he can’t return soon. Today you don’t see very many people. The people are doubting – is he coming, is he not coming?”

Not long after that, Jean and around ten thousand others wildly cheered their first glimpse of Aristide on Haitian soil, but the suspicion of behind-the-scenes meddling by the United States remains. The American ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, warned on Twitter today that Aristide may be a “distraction or a disruption,” ahead of Sunday’s ballot.

For his supporters, Aristide’s presence simply obliterates the election, as if it doesn’t exist. No one knows how many people will go to the polls, how much fraud will taint the vote, and who will be declared victor. Those who aren’t huge supporters of Aristide are excitedly discussing the dueling campaigns. But in the first round, at one of the largest camps for earthquake victims, a tiny ill-equipped voting center was torn down in a rage. Ominously, there has reportedly been no improvement or expansion of the center since then.

“With the warmth of [the international community’s] embrace, we are almost suffocating. Do they even realize this?” asked Haitian agronomist Ericq Pierre on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. Regardless of how the election plays out, maybe it’s finally time American policymakers chill out, back off, and for starters, quit trying to silence the voice of the nation’s most popular-ever President and the legions of poor Haitians who see in him now renewed inspiration and hope for the future.

Update: Just had a nice conversation with the motorcycle driver on the way home through quiet, deserted streets. Very happy that Aristide is back, but hopeful that his partisans won’t come into conflict with Martelly supporters because of Martelly’s historic antipathy towards the ex-President. Said it’s time to put all that behind us (hadn’t heard about the incendiary YouTube video, though).

He’ll vote for Martelly (like seemingly every single other moto driver) because he thinks Manigat is part of the discredited political class, though he’s not sure how smoothly the election will go off. Says he’s having trouble making enough money to keep his moto maintained and feed his four kids. Cautiously optimistic about Sunday and the future.

3 thoughts on “Aristide’s Return and WikiLeaks: When Will the US Finally Change Course on Haiti?”

  1. Thanks for this anyalysis of Aristide’s return. Certainly, it would seem that Duvalier’s being in the country has paved the way for Aristide’s arrival.

    Last week I interviewed Baby Doc and this week have a series of posts on my blog about that encounter, if you are interested: “What Does One Wear to Meet a Former Dictator?”
    Kathryn McCullough

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