Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s last elected president, has finally returned home.
He was kidnapped from Haiti in a US-backed coup in 2004 and exiled in South Africa until his March 18 return.
Aristide returned to a country still devastated by last year’s earthquake. The US and its allies broke their promises to provide badly needed aid.
Two months earlier, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the notorious former dictator overthrown in a mass rebellion in 1986, also returned to Haiti.
Aristide arrived just ahead of the March 20 run-off election for Haiti’s president, which the US hoped would ratify its plans to subjugate the country to Washington’s neoliberal agenda.
Aristide's party, the pro-poor Fanmi Lavalas, was banned from running in the poll.
Kim Ives, a journalist and editor with Haiti Liberte, returned to Haiti ahead of Aristide’s arrival. He provided this live report from Port-au-Prince via phone on March 19. It is abridged from www.socialistWorker.org .
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I am standing near a tent camp here in Port-au-Prince. About 1500 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 tattered tarps and tents, 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.
The tent camp is sandwiched between an assembly factory where some of the residents of this camp work and a food relief operation. That relief operation doesn’t provide enough food. The camp’s residents are practically starving.
This is a microcosm of Haiti — a completely impoverished working class sandwiched between 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 US$1 or $2 a day in an attempt to hold on to a precarious existence.
A 14,000-strong United Nations military occupation polices this tinderbox and enforces Washington's dictates.
This is the context in which the legitimate president Jean-Bertrand Aristide arrived on March 18.
The reception was absolutely extraordinary. A wall of humanity poured down out of the streets and slums and stormed out of the city toward the airport.
When Aristide’s plane landed, Radio Tele Ginen was the only television station that showed up. All of the press boycotted the arrival, even though everybody knew he was returning. Most of the radio owned by the capitalists was not on hand.
The international press was there in force, though, and it was a frantic scramble. After Aristide arrived, 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 the political exclusion of his party Fanmi Lavalas from the elections. He also meant social exclusion.
He meant the fact that the people, living in this camp, living in the slums around here, 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 the interests that drive the rampaging foreign corporations, which are trying to seize control of the state apparatus through the election.
When Aristide arrived, the people were waiting outside the gates of the airport. 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 his 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, internet, telephones or 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.
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 world.
It was a very relaxed, happy occasion. It was so emotional to watch. Tears were streaming down the 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 Africa. Christine, the oldest, was seven-years-old when the coup happened.
Between the ages of seven and 14, she really didn’t know about her father and what a symbol he was in Haiti — somewhat like the Haitian Nelson Mandela. 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 Michaela.
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 the neo-Lavalas, the bourgeiosified Lavalas [which has broken with Aristide], that is in power.
This is what the Duvalierists are now challenging, above all, through the presidential candidacy of Michel Martelly.
Inside this tent camp, 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 capitalise 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’etats, one in 1991 and another in 2004.
Neither worked because 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 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 said: “I’m going to vote Sweet Micky”, meaning 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”.
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 Aristide 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 since December, he has apparently become sharper and more anti-imperialist.
The speech he gave 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.