Late at night on March 17, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide boarded a small plane with his family in Johannesburg. The following morning, he arrived in Haiti. It was just over seven years after he was kidnapped from his home in a U.S.-backed coup d’etat. Haiti has been ravaged by a massive earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and left a million and a half homeless. A cholera epidemic carried in by United Nations occupation forces could sicken almost 800,000. A majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Now, Aristide, by far the most popular figure in Haiti today and the first democratically elected president of the first black republic in the world, has returned home.
“Bon Retou Titid” (good return, Titid, the affectionate term for Aristide) read the signs in Port-au-Prince as thousands flocked to accompany Aristide from the Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport to his home. L’Ouverture led the slave uprising that established Haiti in 1804. I was able to travel with Aristide, his wife, Mildred, and their two daughters from Johannesburg to Haiti on the small jet provided by the government of South Africa. It was my second flight with them. In March 2004, the Aristides attempted to return from forced exile in the Central African Republic, but never made it back to Haiti. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials warned Aristide to stay away from the Western Hemisphere. Defying such pressure, the Aristides stopped in Jamaica before traveling to South Africa, where they remained until last weekend.
Just before this Sunday’s election in Haiti, President Rene Preval gave Aristide the diplomatic passport he had long promised him. Earlier, on Jan. 19, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted, referring to Aristide: “today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past.” Mildred was incensed. She said the U.S. had been saying that since they forced her husband out of the country. Sitting in the plane a few minutes before landing in Haiti, she repeated the words of an African leader who criticized the past abuses of colonial powers by saying, “I would stop talking about the past, if it weren’t so present.”
Mark Toner, the new State Department spokesman, said last week: “Former President Aristide has chosen to remain outside of Haiti for seven years. To return this week could only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections.”
Aristide did not choose to leave or remain outside Haiti, and the Obama administration knows that. On Feb. 29, 2004, Luis Moreno, the No. 2 man in the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, went to the Aristides’ home and hustled them off to the airport. Frantz Gabriel was Aristide’s personal bodyguard in 2004. I met him when he was with the Aristides in the Central African Republic then, and saw him again Friday as the Aristides arrived home. He recalled: “It was not willingly that the president left, because all the people that came in to accompany the president were all military. Having been in the U.S. military myself, I know what a GI looks like, and I know what a special force looks like also ... when we boarded the aircraft, everybody changed their uniform into civilian clothes. And that’s when I knew that it was a special operation.”
The U.S. continued to prevent Aristide from returning for the next seven years. Just last week, President Barack Obama called South African President Jacob Zuma to express “deep concerns” about Aristide’s potential return, and to pressure Zuma to block the trip. Zuma, to his credit, ignored the warning. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal a concerted, multiyear drive to hamper the return of Aristide to Haiti, including diplomatically punishing any country that helped Aristide, including threatening to block a U.N. Security Council seat for South Africa.
After landing in Port-au-Prince, Aristide wasted no time. He addressed the people of Haiti from the airport. His remarks touched on a key point of the current elections there: that his political party, the most popular party in Haiti, Fanmi Lavalas, is banned, excluded from the elections. He said: “The problem is exclusion, and the solution is inclusion. The exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas is the exclusion of the majority ... because everybody is a person.” Looking out on the country he hadn’t seen in seven years, he concluded: “Haiti, Haiti, the further I am from you, the less I breathe. Haiti, I love you, and I will love you always. Always.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.