When Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made his surprising return to Haiti this January, it was no surprise to anyone that another former exiled president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, would be plotting his eventual return to his homeland well.
Today, Aristide will arrive in Haiti just in time for Sunday’s presidential runoff. Representatives for Aristide, whose Lavalas Party was barred from the elections, insist he has no political ambitions in the near future. They say Aristide wants to be part of the rebuilding efforts in Haiti. American officials view such talks suspiciously and had urged Aristide to return to Haiti well after the results of the vote.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that for Aristide to return this week “could only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections.”
“We would urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded, to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere,” he added.
In response, Aristide’s lawyer Ira Kurzban said the former president was concerned that he might lose his chance to return to Haiti once a new president was in place.
“They should leave the decision to the democratically elected government instead of seeking to dictate the terms under which a Haitian citizen may return to his country,” he said.
Who is Aristide and why does the mere mention of his name rankle American diplomats and others? To his supporters, he is battling Haiti’s powerful elites and foreigners bent on keeping Haiti’s poor in their wretched position in society.
To his detractors, Aristide is a divisive figure who has sown the seeds of hate and violence in Haiti. He is also viewed as a cunning politician who has enriched himself like many other past Haitian presidents.
What is clear is that Aristide has had a very contentious career since he emerged on the Haitian political scene, going from a parish priest in the slums of Port-au-Prince to becoming president.
I first heard of Jean Bertrand Aristide when I was a junior at Florida A&M University during a visit back home in New York during the Christmas break in 1985. In college I had not followed news from Haiti closely. Still, I was struck by how everywhere I went people were talking about this “ti pe a” or “the little priest.”
During that time pressure was mounting against Duvalier regime, whose corrupt rule was offensive and oppressive. Student protests were erupting across the country and Aristide’s fiery rhetoric became the call to arms for the movement. A few months later in February 1986, Duvalier and his wife Michelle, would be bound for comfortable exile in France.
I did not think much of Aristide after graduating. I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years living in Togo and Benin, West Africa. I didn’t hear about him again until walking through the Pittsburg airport en route to Indianapolis when I picked up Amy Wilentz’s book The Rainy Season, Haiti after the Duvaliers, I devoured the book and was enthralled by the main character, Aristide. Wilentz’s depiction of Aristide laid the foundation for many left wings or so called American progressives love affair with Aristide. Aristide was already deeply popular among the masses and Haiti’s left leaning intellectuals.
I was dutifully impressed by Aristide’s courage and brazenness in speaking out against the Duvalier regime, which in the past had been a sure death sentence. I thought that finally Haiti had found its consciousness. I saw Aristide a Haitian version of Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I began to feel optimistic about Haiti.
But such optimism was quickly dashed when in 1990 Aristide announced that he was running for president. I was disappointed because the fiery rhetoric sometimes laden with anti-American diatribes could not help him fulfill the needs of the people. Not much could be accomplished from the presidency; the country had too many needs and not enough resources. He was bound to fail.
Such nuanced viewed earned me the label of a Macoute, the catch all word for a reactionary and more formally, Duvalier’s goon squad. Haitian society too often sees things as a zero sum game.
Aristide would go on to become the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history, so they say, and would be toppled by September of 1991. He spent nearly three years in the United States until President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 mostly American troops to Haiti to restore him to power.
After spending less than a year as president, Aristide reluctantly agreed to cede power, saying that he wanted to recoup the years he spent in exile. His “twin” Rene Preval won the vote and acted more as a caretaker president than a popularly elected leader.
It is during that time that Aristide veered into the dark side. He was the Caudillo par excellence. Nothing could get done in the country without his approval. Foreign diplomats and visiting dignitaries stopped at Aristide’s residence in Tabarre before they went to the National Palace to see Preval.
Aristide was re-elected to the presidency in 2000 but was once again forced into exile in February 2004 under severe American and French pressure. Later, Aristide would claim that he was “kidnapped” and taken out of Haiti against his will. This ouster was a bizarre scene that began with an “uprising” by former soldiers from the disbanded Haitian Armed Forces. Its leader was none other than Guy Philippe, a former police official, whose American visa had been revoked because of his involvement in the drug transshipment in Haiti. The so-called army crossed the Dominican Republic border and marched through Haiti, reaching Port-au-Prince and was at the Palace’s doors when Aristide left.
So now we’re about to enter the latest chapter in a long convoluted relationship between Haiti and Aristide. I hope that Aristide can once again be that parish priest of the 1980s, speaking out against injustices and educating the people he purports to love.