Aristide makes triumphant Haiti return before vote
Reuters – By Joseph Guyler Delva and Pascal Fletcher – March 19, 2011
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a triumphant homecoming to Haiti on Friday after seven years of exile, returning despite U.S. objections two days before a crucial presidential vote.
Thousands of enthusiastic followers turned out to greet the former leader, who is still widely revered in impoverished Haiti as a champion of the poor, although viewed by the United States as divisive figure who could disrupt Sunday’s election.
Supporters whooped and cheered at Port-au-Prince airport as a smiling Aristide, accompanied by his family and U.S. actor and black rights activist Danny Glover, emerged from the charter plane that brought him home from South Africa.
“If you could lean against my heart you could hear how fast it is beating, how it is singing a melody to Haiti,” Aristide, wearing a blue suit, told reporters at the airport.
He said he had come back to make “a small contribution” to his country, which is struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and set back development in one of the world’s poorest states.
Screaming supporters of “Titide”, as he is affectionately known, waved Haitian flags and welcome banners and mobbed the black SUV that took him from the airport — with a police officer sitting on the front of the car.
At his spacious home in the capital’s Tabarre district, which had been refurbished for his arrival and draped with national flags, followers climbed walls and trees to pack the yard to greet him when he arrived. One woman rolled on the ground in delight, screaming “Long Live Aristide.”
Aristide, 57, a charismatic former Roman Catholic priest, was ousted from power in 2004 through an armed rebellion.
He became Haiti’s first freely elected president in 1991, but was overthrown by the military after seven months. His fiery brand of left-wing populism won him enemies among business elites and the army, which he eventually abolished.
Re-elected in 2000, his second term saw economic instability and violence, with critics accusing him of intolerance and persecution of opponents.
Aristide, who had accused Washington of helping to engineer his 2004 exile, ignored a direct plea from the United States to delay his return to the Caribbean nation until after Sunday.
Washington and other western donors, who have pledged billions of dollars to help rebuild Haiti after the earthquake, had expressed fears that the homecoming of the former president could be destabilizing for the run-off election.
“PEACE IN THE HEAD AND IN THE BELLY”
In the initial second-round run-off in the history of Haiti’s presidential elections, voters will choose between popular musician Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly and former first lady Mirlande Manigat.
Donors hope the election will appoint a stable leadership to administer post-quake reconstruction funds.
In his first comments, Aristide mostly avoided overtly political issues but stressed the importance of including all Haitians in national life. He did mention the “exclusion” of his Fanmi Lavalas party, Haiti’s biggest, which says it was barred from having its own candidate for the elections.
“We condemn all kinds of violence so that the education of young people can bring peace in the head and the belly,” Aristide said, recalling one of his old campaigning slogans.
“This is a great day for the Haitian people,” said Ansyto Felix, an activist for the Fanmi Lavalas party. U.N. peacekeepers, who are providing security for the polls, reinforced Haitian police in the streets. But the top U.N. official in the country, Edmond Mulet, told Reuters he was relieved Aristide had avoided talking about politics and that there had been no violence on his arrival.
“So far, so good,” Mulet said. “Right now we are focused on the elections on Sunday”.
ARISTIDE “WILD CARD”
In his comments, Aristide remembered the victims of the 2010 earthquake and hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors still living in tent camps across the wrecked capital. “Your suffering is running through my blood like a river,” he said.
Before Aristide’s arrival, U.S. President Barack Obama had called his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, to stress the importance of Aristide not returning before the poll. South Africa said it could not stop Aristide from going back home.
Despite a generally calm second-round campaign, there are fears that although Aristide is not a candidate his presence and large numbers of his followers in the streets could stir up a volatile electoral atmosphere.
“A lot can still go wrong … Whoever wins, Martelly or Manigat, will have to face a monumental challenge, and the Aristide wild card thrown into the mix will not make things any easier,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Aides to Aristide say he intends to stay out of politics and use his expertise in education to assist Haiti’s recovery.
Both presidential candidates have said Aristide has the right to return to his country, although they would have preferred him to come back after Sunday’s vote.
American movie star Glover, who had flown with Aristide from South Africa, called it a “great day for Haiti.”
“He is the country’s first democratically elected president back home with his people, back home in order to help rebuild his country,” Glover told Reuters.
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Back in Haiti, is Aristide eyeing presidency?
Thousands welcomed former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s arrival today in Haiti, less than 48 hours before a presidential election. The timing of his return potentially qualifies him to run in the next election.
By Isabeau Doucet and Ezra Fieser, Correspondents / March 18, 2011
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
After seven years in exile, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide today returned to Haiti and vowed to dedicate himself to his nation’s health and education even amid fears that his presence will disrupt Sunday’s election.
“My role is to serve you in love,” the former priest said during remarks in which he switched between a handful of languages, including Creole and Zulu, the language of South Africa where he has lived in exile since a 2004 ouster.
Aristide, who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president on a groundswell of support from the poor in 1990, remains a popular a political figure in Haiti. While he says he has no plans to reenter politics, the timing of his return would potentially qualify him to run for president in the next election under Haiti’s residency rules, which say a candidate must reside in Haiti for the five years before the election.
“Aristide cannot return to Haiti without having a politically significant presence,” says Ericq Pierre, a senior counselor for the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti. “Politically he should be dead after two coup d’états. But now he looks stronger than ever.”
Aristide arrived to hordes of journalists and a few thousand cheering supporters. His wife, Mildred, who wept as she deplaned, actor and political activist Danny Glover, and a few others accompanied Aristide on the overnight flight from Johannesburg.
“This country needs education with dignity without social exclusion. The solution is inclusion,” he said Friday.
In returning to Haiti, Aristide defied international pressure. President Obama telephoned South African President Jacob Zuma Tuesday urging him to delay Aristide’s return until after Sunday’s election.
“A return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing to the political process,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a briefing this week.
His political endorsement – yet unannounced – could tip the balance in Sunday’s run-off presidential election between former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The delayed vote follows a first round in November that was marred by fraud, widespread confusion, and historically low turnout.
Aristide was twice elected president and twice deposed and forced into exile. His second ouster, in 2004, came under pressure from the US, which arranged for his flight out of the country, he says.
Aristide’s command of Creole and oration were a stark contrast from the Duvalierist culture of privilege and excess. He won a huge following among Haiti’s majority poor by opposing the dictatorial regime of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who fled in 1986. In January, Mr Duvalier also returned from exile, in France.
A once-overwhelmingly popular force, Aristide is today a polarizing figure.
Supporters say he stood for the poor and that his return will only help a country struggling to recover from last January’s devastating earthquake and a cholera epidemic. “Aristide’s return will be good for all Haitians,” says Haitian journalist Wisley Desalan, who flew to South Africa recently to interview the former president. “He will work with all Haitians in Health and education.”
Detractors say Aristide’s last term was marred by corruption and human rights abuses.
“Officials in Aristide’s government used their public office as personal fiefdoms, engaged in rampant corruption and drug-trafficking; they even used gangs, some of whom were armed, against their opponents,” Alex Dupuy, author on the book “The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti,” wrote in a column for the Guardian on Friday.
In the short term, Aristide has little reason to involve himself in politics, says Henry Carey, a political scientist who tracks Haiti politics at Georgia State University.
“I don’t expect him to endorse either candidate … or play a role in the election. It doesn’t make sense for him,” Professor Carey says. “He has other things to worry about. There are still people who probably want to kill him.”
But in the long-term, Carey believes Aristide will move back to politics. While the Constitution forbids presidents from serving more than two terms, some argue that Aristide never finished his second term and so could run again for office.
If his intentions are political, Aristide will need to rebuild his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, which was barred from running a candidate in this election.
Patrick Elie, a former minister under Aristide, says the party crumbled in Aristide’s absence.
“Aristide was a crutch for someone who broke their leg, one should always be grateful for a crutch, but one should start walking again without a crutch,” he says.