In the News: Jean Bertrand Aristide’s Triumphant Return to Haiti

“Wall of humanity” greets former president and family upon their return

by Kim Ives
Published in Socialist Worker, March 23, 2011

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has returned to the country he was kidnapped from in a U.S.-backed coup just over seven years ago. Despite massive pressure brought to bear by the U.S. government, Aristide boarded a small plane with his family in South Africa on March 17 and arrived in Haiti the next day.

The country he returned to has been ravaged by last year’s massive earthquake and the terrible aftermath, during which the U.S. and its allies broke their promises to provide desperately needed aid. Two months before, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the notorious former dictator who was driven into exile by a mass rebellion in 1986, also returned to Haiti.

Aristide arrived just ahead of a run-off election on March 20 for Haiti’s president that the U.S. hoped would ratify its plans for a country subjugated to Washington’s neoliberal agenda. Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, was excluded from the election. Results of the run-off were still being calculated on March 22.

Kim Ives, a journalist and editor with Haiti Liberté, returned to Haiti ahead of Aristide’s arrival. He provided this live report from Port-au-Prince via phone to a panel discussion on March 19–the day before the election–at the Left Forum in New York City.

I am standing near a tent camp here in Port-au-Prince. About 1,500 internally displaced people have been living here since just after the earthquake.

This place is a poster child for Haitian poverty and misery. The people here find minimal shelter under scattered tarps and tents, beneath a blazing sun and near a cesspool which floods anytime it rains, sending waste and foul water into people’s tents. It’s a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It’s filled with garbage and stinks to high heaven. It is truly a miserable place.

The tent camp is sandwiched between an assembly factory where many of the residents of this camp work and a food relief operation. That relief operation doesn’t provide enough food for these people. The camp’s residents are practically starving. You see children with swollen bellies mixed with the miserable adults.

This is really a microcosm of Haiti–a completely impoverished working class sandwiched between these NGOs and sweatshops. The NGOs provide less than minimal nutrition to them. In fact, the Red Cross, which has been providing water to this camp, is set to cut it off next week. The sweatshops take advantage of this misery. People consider it a privilege to accept a wage of $1 or $2 a day in an attempt to hold on to a precarious existence.

This is the context in which President Jean-Bertrand Aristide arrived yesterday. The reception was absolutely extraordinary. People say it wasn’t a “lavalas,” which in Creole means a cleansing flood–it was a tsunami. A wall of humanity poured down out of the streets and slums and stormed out of the city toward the airport.

This was impressive because the Duvalierists, neo-Duvalierists and international embassies did a major campaign to try to confuse people. They kept repeating, “No, he’s not coming back until the 22nd, or “It’s not clear when he’s coming back.” We were doing interviews in front of the palace, and we’d have people jump in and repeat these claims.

So people all across Haiti were confused. When Aristide’s plane landed, Radio Télé Ginen was the only television station that showed up. All of the press boycotted the arrival, even though everybody knew he was returning. It was streaming live on Democracy Now!–Amy Goodman was sending pictures out from the plane. But most of the radio here owned by the bourgeoisie was not on hand.

The international press was there in force, though, and it was a frantic scramble. After Aristide arrived, as many of you have seen already, he gave a speech. It was, I would say, better than many had hoped, because he spoke clearly, and what he said was like a match to a fuse.

He said, “Exclusion is the problem, inclusion is the solution.” He was talking not just about political the exclusion of his party Fanmi Lavalas from the elections that are going to take place tomorrow. He also meant social exclusion–the fact that the people, living in this camp, living in the slums around here, working in these factories, working and living and in many cases dying because of the poor conditions, are excluded from the riches that exist in this country.

He did not only mean the agricultural richness that Haiti once produced in rice, sugar, coffee and other crops. He also meant the exclusion from benefiting from the mineral wealth that is being discovered here. He spoke about the exclusion from newly found uranium, oil, gold, silver, marble, calcium carbonate and other resources. Those are some of interests that drive these rampaging foreign corporations, which are trying to seize control of the state apparatus now through the election.

But let’s turn back to the day itself. The people were waiting outside the gates of the airport. Security inside the airport was extremely tight. We were shuttled by buses out to where the plane flew in. It flew in about 20 minutes early so the press was taken somewhat unaware, but immediately, all the barricades and fences were swept away by the press, which just ran up to the plane. Aristide descended into a pool of press. And on leaving the airport, he descended into an ocean of people.

It was quite extraordinary. It was beyond joyous–I would almost call it rapturous. Margaret Prescott of Women’s Strike for Peace called it a “tsunami of love.” People jogged alongside Aristide’s motorcade as it brought him back to his home in Tabarre, about two or three miles from the airport.

When we arrived at the home, the plan, I think, was that the motorcade would enter, and the people would stay outside, but that’s not what happened. An ocean of people surged into the compound.

The Aristides are living there, but they don’t have electricity, they don’t have Internet, they don’t have telephones, they don’t have water. They’re camping out in the shell of their former home, which was torn apart by the rebels that came, looted and broke whatever they could back in 2004. But it has been painted and repaired. This crowd, this ocean of people, carried the Aristide delegation into the compound. People were climbing up trees and walls to get a glimpse of Aristide. They were on top of the house. They were dancing, they were singing, they were yelling. It was bedlam. It was pandemonium.

The press was bobbing around, like little floats in this ocean, with their microphones and cameras, trying to capture it, but it was like trying to capture a waterfall with a teaspoon. It was just extraordinary.

Finally, after about five or six hours, people started to fade away, and eventually, some police came in and cleared the yard. Inside the house, a number of Lavalas supporters gathered from around the country and around the U.S. I should also say around the world, because CLR James’ widow Selma James was there. She runs an organization in London called “Women’s Crossroads.” There was Pierre LaBossiere from the Haiti Action Committee, Margaret Prescott from Women Strike for Peace, Amy Goodman and Sharif Abdel Kouddous from Democracy Now!

It was a very relaxed, very happy occasion. It was so emotional to watch. Tears were streaming down cheeks of Aristide and his family as they came into their home. You have to imagine what it was like for his two daughters. They have essentially grown up in South African. Cristina, the oldest, was seven years old when the coup happened. Between the ages of 7 and 14, she really didn’t know about her father and what a symbol he was in Haiti–somewhat like the Haitian Nelson Mandela. So she was learning now as a teenager about her father’s significance. It was touching to watch the emotion and pride on her face, and that of her sister Mikaela.

All in all, I can say that the return has set the stage for a political confrontation. The Lavalas movement burst onto the scene 20 years ago and essentially seized power from the Duvalierists and neo-Duvalierists in 1990. Now we see a similar confrontation emerging decades later, but the roles are reversed. It’s Lavalas–or what I would call the neo-Lavalas, the bourgeiosified Lavalas–which is in power. This is what the Duvalierists are now challenging, above all, through the candidacy of Michel Martelly.

Inside this tent camp, where I am standing, Martelly has built a base of Duvalierists. I just overheard a guy on the phone saying “Jean-Claude Duvalier, that’s who I believe in, because he doesn’t take any shit. He’s the man.” So the thugs of the bourgeoisie and the big landowners are trying to capitalize on people’s misery, gather supporters and hoist themselves into power for the first time through elections.

We have to remember that Duvalierists tried to take power over the past 20 years through coup d’états, one in 1991 and another in 2004. Neither of those worked because they were military coups, and the people resisted. But they’ve diversified their weaponry and are now coming to power through an electoral coup.

I call the election a coup because it is completely illegal. The Institute for Justice and Democracy has issued a study that lays out how completely phony and bogus the elections are. Nevertheless, this is how Michel Martelly will ascend into power.

The people are divided. Do we go with Martelly? Do we try to boycott? Most of the Lavalas base was despairing, but with Aristide’s return, it’s now been emboldened and invigorated, and I think that the boycott movement has been given an effective jolt of energy. I think we may see a strong boycott. Will it be reported? Will it succeed in discrediting the elections? That remains to be seen.

We heard the debate in the Lavalas base inside the compound yesterday. Some would say, “I’m going to vote Sweet Micky,” meaning Michel Martelly. But those people would always be interrupted by others who supported a boycott, saying, “No, there was no first round, there will be no second round.”

So this is the debate going on between the Lavalas forces that support a boycott and the neo-Duvalierists who are trying to come to power through an electoral coup. This is the battle we are seeing, and I think Aristide’s arrival in the country has brought it to a new phase.

How will Aristide handle it? How he will navigate in these narrows remains to be seen. He has in past years tried to do what they call in Creole “marronage,” which is to compromise, and wheel and deal his way through such situations. That strategy has often alienated sectors of the left that had supported him because he was the people’s choice, but were frustrated with his compromises.

But I think Aristide has changed to some extent. If you read his statements in exile, particularly from this past December, he has apparently become harder and more anti-imperialist. The speech he gave yesterday at the airport spoke clearly to the question of inclusion and exclusion. He didn’t avoid political questions completely as he might have in the past.

Although not as combative as some might have wished, his speech was enough to send a strong message to the people. I think in the days and weeks ahead, we’re going to see a confrontation begin to take shape between a neo-Duvalierist regime, most likely led by Martelly, and a counter-attack by Aristide and the Lavalas base.