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With Aristide's Return Comes Hope
We don't know how Haiti will react to an election that excluded his party, but the former president will take his cue from the people
The return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his family to Haiti ends seven long years of campaigning – the 92% of voters who elected him had never accepted his overthrow in 2004 by a US-backed military coup. They risked their lives against a UN occupation that killed and brutalised thousands to demand his return. And last Friday he flew back from South Africa, where he had been living in forced exile, to a rapturous welcome in Port-au-Prince.
I was one of those waiting to greet him at his modest house, from where he was kidnapped seven years ago. Some of the waiting crowd were former political prisoners, others were visiting from exile. Yet others, disheartened after so many defeats – dictators, coups, hurricanes, earthquake, then cholera – had returned from Haiti's diaspora.
We listened on transistor radios for news of his arrival. Finally Aristide's plane had landed, and he was addressing supporters in a number of languages. He was back on Haitian soil two days before the fraudulent election from which his party has been excluded.
Much later his car was heard in the driveway. As the barrier that protected the house began to slide open, mainly young people began to flood the path and climb the walls, until we were surrounded by a torrent of the joyous. Lavalas, meaning "flash flood", was the name of Titid's party, and here it was. In their midst, hidden from our view, was the Aristides' car.
We waited another hour to be escorted inside through the singing and dancing crowd. I was welcomed into the arms of his wife and my friend Mildred Trouillot. She was unafraid, elated to be back and part of this historic event. Her girls, 14 and 12 years old, had to see how their father was greeted, she told me, so "they understood who he was. Nothing else can explain it". The girls' non-negotiable demand was that they bring their beloved little dog.
Later we were brought to meet their father. Aristide spoke about learning from the people, a practical strategy now. No one knows how Haitians will meet the rigged election process which arrogantly excluded Lavalas from the ballot. Their leader is likely to take his cue from the collective response.
He embraced me as the living connection with my late husband CLR James's Black Jacobins. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa when Aristide first arrived there, had told him that when Mbeki read this history of revolutionary slaves triumphant, he felt confident they would end apartheid. It was not so much a book as a weapon for freedom fighters. James had implied in the book that that was his intention. How unfair that he never knew of his real success.
On election day we visited Cité Soleil, an impoverished area which has been an Aristide stronghold. We heard that two days earlier the presidential candidate Michel Martelly, a popular musician associated with the Tonton Macoutes – the Duvalier murder squads that terrorised Haiti for decades – had been driven about by people singing. UN soldiers from Brazil were all around the polling station, menacing, rifles at the ready.
We asked people about Aristide and the elections: they were happy he was back, but he wasn't on the ballot and they urgently needed to hold a government to account.
Yet the presence of Aristide in Haiti has immediately shifted everyone's situation. When he landed he spoke of "the humiliation of the people under tents" and said that "modern-day slavery will have to end today".
What's clear is that the 1804 revolution never ended. The US and the Haitian elite seem as determined as 19th-century France to keep Haitians enslaved, though sweatshops have replaced plantations and UN tanks Napoleon's army.
Nobody knows yet how Haitians will deal with the rigged election results. Aristide spoke to us about "learning from the people". He is likely to take his cue from their collective response. Having achieved the victory of his return, the movement has again a powerful, compassionate voice.