Published on Monday, March 15, 2004 by Democracy Now!
Defying Washington: Haiti's Aristide Heads Back to the Caribbean
BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is on his way back to the Caribbean. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman is onboard a chartered Gulfstream jet with Aristide, his Haitian-American wife Mildred, and the delegation of US and Jamaican officials that is accompanying the Aristides to Jamaica, which has offered to temporarily host them. Goodman is one of only two journalists traveling with Aristide.
In returning to the Caribbean, Aristide is defying the Bush administration, which has stated clearly it does not want Aristide in the Western Hemisphere.
Preceding Aristide's departure, there was a several-hour-long stand-off in Bangui that raised serious questions about whether the Haitian leader would be permitted to leave Africa. The events also suggest that the US or other foreign governments may have attempted to prevent or delay Aristide from leaving. Aristide, who was democratically elected, has charged that he was "kidnapped" from Haiti on February 29 in a US-orchestrated coup. Aristide reiterated these allegations in a series of interviews with Goodman in Bangui.
Throughout Sunday, there were a flurry of meetings between Aristide and the president of the Central African Republic, Gen. Francois Bozize. Some of the meetings also included Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Jamaican parliamentarian Sharon Hay-Webster, who is representing Jamaica's Prime Minister PJ Patterson, as well as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). At one point, Aristide emerged from a meeting with Gen. Bozize inside the presidential palace. Amy Goodman reported that when he came out of the meeting, Aristide was "surrounded by military."
After the initial round of talks with Bozize, Aristide spoke briefly with Goodman. She reported that "Aristide thinks that President Bozize must consult with those who called Bozize before Aristide was taken to the CAR?the US, France and Gabon?to decide whether Bozize should allow Aristide to leave the country." These were the three countries that orchestrated Aristide's stay in the CAR.
It is not yet clear what possible role the US and other foreign governments played in the stand-off that preceded Aristide's departure from the CAR. In an interview with Goodman as the stand-off was underway, Aristide's lawyer Ira Kurzban questioned whether the Haitian president was being held prisoner because he was not being allowed to leave when he wanted.
Ultimately, after numerous meetings, the group was told they would be allowed to leave the CAR. Moments before they took off, Goodman conducted a brief, exclusive interview with Aristide. "Because they [the government of the CAR] were so gracious in welcoming us here, it is natural that while we are leaving the first thing we say is thank you," Aristide told Goodman.
She then asked Aristide for his thoughts on his impending return to the Caribbean. "In the Caribbean family, we find the African diaspora too," said Aristide. "Now that we are in Africa, moving toward Jamaica, we are moving from one big family to the same family somehow. That?s why we will continue to do our best to promote peace, friendship for all of us as members of the same family, as brothers and sisters."
Mildred Aristide told Goodman she is very much looking forward to reuniting with her two small daughters.
The delegation that traveled to the CAR to escort Aristide back to the Caribbean was led by Rep. Waters. "It has been been quite an experience," Waters told Goodman just before they boarded the plane in Bangui. "It has been a long day... We are very pleased to be getting on the airplane and he will be in Jamaica by tomorrow."
Sharon Hay-Webster, the emissary of Jamaica and CARICOM, told Goodman, "I can say that on behalf of the team, all of us who were here to represent President Aristide and CARICOM, all of his family within the diaspora of the US and the Caribbean, we are happy to meet with our family members here in Africa and to have a positive decision to be taken - that is for him to be returned to his family within CARICOM... and for him to be reunited with his children and all the family to plan together as to how they will proceed from here."
TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, who is a close friend of the Aristides, is also a member of the delegation. "I am very pleased that President and Mrs. Aristide will be reunited with the children tomorrow in Jamaica," Robinson told Democracy Now!. "It is refreshing. I am extremely relieved. They have been out here for so long. To see them joining us, going home is a great joy and a great relief."
Before the Aristides departed Bangui, President Bozize presented them with two gifts--one a picture made of hundreds of butterfly wings, the other a piece of art made from rare wood from the CAR.
US OPPOSES ARISTIDE'S RETURN TO WEST. HEMISPHERE
Throughout Sunday, Goodman reported on the stand-off in the CAR over the fate of Aristide and his wife Mildred. She indicated that there was some question among the visiting delegation on what role Washington was playing in the situation. What is clear is that US officials have declared very publicly that they do not want Aristide to return to the Western Hemisphere.
"We think it's a bad idea," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told NBC's "Meet the Press." "We believe that President Aristide, in a sense, forfeited his ability to lead his people, because he did not govern democratically."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on CNN's "Late Edition," said: "The hope is that he will not come back into the hemisphere and complicate [the] situation."
In Haiti, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Richard Myers, said, "As far as Aristide?s return to the region is concerned, if that increases the violence here, then that would be extremely unhelpful."
The US has also criticized Jamaica for offering to host Aristide. "Jamaican authorities are certainly taking on a risk and a responsibility," said James Foley, the US Ambassador to Haiti. "His coming within 150 miles from Haiti is promoting violence."
Jamaican Prime Minister Patterson, speaking as current chairman of the 15-nation CARICOM, has called for an international investigation into the circumstances of Aristide's removal from Haiti February 29. The 53-nation African Union echoed that call last week.
Earlier, Goodman reported that, as the stand-off ensued, the delegation's pilots were on-board the plane for a number of hours, awaiting word on whether the group would be allowed to leave. "That answer has come and it appears to be yes," said Goodman, just moments after the final round of talks between Aristide, Bozize and the US/Jamaican delegation ended.
Moments before the Aristides and the delegation left for the airport, the Director General of State Protocol of the Central African Republic, Stanislas Moussa-Kembe, told Goodman, who at the time was inside the Presidential Palace in Bangui, that the Aristides would be allowed to leave the Central African Republic immediately. He told Goodman, "You're headed to the airport."
Goodman was reporting from inside the Presidential Palace late into Sunday night. She is now with Aristide and the delegation that came from the US to escort him to Jamaica. They are expected to arrive in the Caribbean nation midday Monday.
NOTE: Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman has been in the Central African Republic with a delegation led by US and Jamaican lawmakers, where she has been reporting on the return of Aristide to the Caribbean. They are currently on a plane en route to Jamaica. The delegation includes Rep. Maxine Waters, TransAfrica founder and close friend of the Aristides, Randall Robinson, Sharon Hay-Webster, an emissary of the Jamaican prime minister, as well as Aristide's Miami-based lawyer, Ira Kurzban. Washington Post reporter Peter Eisner is also with the group.
This is a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive. Check the Democracy Now! website regularly for the latest news on this historic trip.