Return of Aristide: Homecoming or Comeback? Alex Dupuy
Haiti’s ousted former president still enjoys popular support, but there are many obstacles to a resumption of his political career.
Much has been made in the Haitian and international media about the prospect of the return of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been in exile in South Africa since 2004, but has, this Friday, arrived in Port-au-Prince. Aristide is the only Haitian president to be overthrown twice. The first time was in a September 1991 coup d’état, seven months after he was elected to office. Thanks to the intervention of the French and American ambassadors with the coup leaders, he was able to leave Haiti and spend the next three years in exile, most of it in the United States.
He returned to Haiti in October 1994, protected by 20,000 US troops to serve the remaining 18 months of his first term. He disbanded the Haitian army before he left office. Re-elected and taking office in February 2001 for a second and final five-year term, he was toppled again in February 2004. Aristide had asked the US to beef up his foreign private security; instead, the US ambassador gave him a choice to leave Haiti or face the rebel forces made up of former members of the Haitian army and paramilitaries. Aristide chose the first option, but later called it a kidnapping.
Aristide’s supporters were exuberant when they thought his return was imminent after the Haitian government issued him a new passport on 7 February. A month passed, and the United States, as late as this week, was pressuring the governments of South Africa and Haiti to delay his return until after 20 March, when the compromised “electoral process” that began on 28 November was due to conclude. Aristide’s supporters were guaranteed to give him a more jubilant and noisier welcome than former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier received when he returned to Haiti unexpectedly in January, after 25 years in exile; Duvalier now faces the possibility of indictments for his alleged past crimes.
Whatever the hopes of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas base, though, I don’t see any real prospect of a political comeback for the former president. After the 20,000 US troops escorted Aristide back to Haiti in 1994, he abandoned the progressive agenda he was elected to implement in 1991. Although he continued to portray himself as the champion of the poor, he largely accepted the neoliberal policies known as the “Washington consensus” as a quid pro quo for his return. And when re-elected in 2001, Aristide’s chief objective was to monopolise political power, and through his Lavalas Family party, ensure that he would govern without the divided parliament and opposition he had faced in 1991.
In a vain attempt to obtain financial assistance from international financial institutions, Aristide implemented their neoliberal policies. This involved evicting farmers from a fertile area in the north of Haiti near the Dominican Republic to make way for poverty-wage garment industries geared for export to the US. Aristide’s second administration was also marred by grave misgovernance. 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. Funds allocated for public works projects were not used for those purposes or were unaccounted for. Elected officials were implicated in a scandal involving the redistribution and sale of rice imported duty-free and exempt from consumer taxes; and high-level government officials were implicated in a cooperative scheme that went bankrupt in 2002, having defrauded numerous poor and middle-class Haitians of their savings.
Blaming the opposition, Aristide’s supporters attacked and burned the homes and headquarters of some of their leaders after a group of former members of the Haitian army attacked the presidential palace in 2001. Aristide loyalists also attacked members of the press critical of the government, sending many into hiding and forcing others to seek refuge in foreign embassies or flee the country; members of a pro-Lavalas organisation were subsequently indicted for the murder of Brignol Lindor, a reporter, in December 2001. And in December 2003, Aristide supporters attacked university students protesting against his government, leading tens of thousands, including members of his own Lavalas party, to take to the streets to demand his resignation.
Aristide’s government’s record on human rights violations is in no way comparable to that of Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86), or of his father, François (1957-71), when tens of thousands of Haitians were killed, disappeared, imprisoned without trial and tortured. But justice does not have a threshold below which people are not liable for human rights violations, embezzlement, corruption or drug-trafficking. Aristide himself has never been indicted for any crime, but many former Lavalas and government officials, some close to him, have been indicted, arrested, prosecuted and convicted.
Aristide still commands support among the poor, in the slums of Port-au-Prince especially, though many have now rallied behind Michel Martelly – one of the two centre-right candidates due to contest the 20 March runoff. But the November 2010 elections – riddled with fraud and with a very low turnout – should have been annulled already. With Aristide’s return, an electoral process already suffering a crisis of legitimacy would seem difficult to conclude satisfactorily.
Aristide has said he wants to return mainly to resume his work in the field of education – but he is above all a homo politicus, as witnessed by the timing of this return. It would be impossible for him not to want to play a prominent role in politics. But Aristide may, in fact, prove a spent force – for all the the noise and exuberance of his supporters in Haiti, and the consternation of his opponents, including the “troika” of the United States, Canada and France.
Haiti’s constitution bars him from running for a third presidential term. To change that, Aristide, who is deeply averse to structured political organisations, would have to work hard to unify his splintered and feuding Lavalas party – which was excluded from fielding candidates in the November elections – and make it once again the dominant political force in Haiti. That is a tall order. The political climate has changed considerably since 2004, and the situation will change again if, after 20 March, either Manigat or Martelly is “elected” president.
Aristide also has many enemies among the Haitian middle class, intelligentsia and political class, to say nothing of the dominant business class and the troika. Even assuming there is no attempt to indict him for human rights abuses or corruption allegedly committed by his 2001-2004 government, Aristide would still have to tread carefully to avoid being made to regret his decision to return. Despite his supporters’ hopes, Aristide’s homecoming may yet prove more of a retirement than a relaunch.