Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is still the national leader of Fanmi Lavalas, one of Haiti's most popular political parties. A former priest and proponent of liberation theology, Aristide served as Haiti's first democratically elected president in 1990 before he was ousted in a CIA-backed coup in September 1991. He returned to power in 1994 with the help of the Clinton administration and finished his term. He was elected again seven years later, only to be ousted in a coup in February 2004. The coup was lead by former Haitian soldiers in tandem with members of the opposition. Aristide has repeatedly claimed that he was forced to resign at gunpoint by members of the U.S. Embassy. U.S. officials claim that he decided to resign freely following the violent uprising. He now lives in exile in South Africa where he waits to get his diplomatic passport renewed. He is not allowed to travel outside South Africa.
ROSSIER: Can you tell me how and when you learned about the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010?
ARISTIDE: I realized that it was a disaster. We lost about 300,000 people. About 39 percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, including 50 hospitals and about 1,350 schools. They have cleared about 2 percent of rubble and debris. Close to 1.8 million victims are living in the street homeless.
As for this recent incident of cholera, it's critical. Those who organized the coup d'état/kidnapping of 2004, paving the way for the invaders now accused of having caused the recent outbreak of cholera, must share the blame. The root causes, and what facilitated the deadly spread of the disease, are structural, embedded in Haiti's historical impoverishment, marginalization, and economic exploitation. The country's once thriving rice industry—destroyed by the subsidized U.S. rice industry in the 1980s—was at the epicenter of the cholera outbreak. The near destruction of our rice industry, coupled with the systematic and cruel elimination of Haitian pigs, rendered the region and the country poorer.
In 2003 our government had already paid the fees on an approved loan from the InterAmerican Development Bank to implement a water sanitization project in the Artibonite. As you can remember, that loan and four others were blocked as part of a calculated strategy by the so-called friends of Haiti to weaken our government and justify the coup d'état.
Many observers in Haiti and elsewhere keep asking: "What are you doing here and what prevents you from coming back to your own country?" The Haitian constitution does not allow political exile. You have not been convicted of anything, so what prevents you from going back?
When I look at it from the South African perspective, I don't find the real reasons. But if I try to understand it from the Haitian perspective, the same people who organized the invasion of 2004 after kidnapping me are still there. That means there is a kind of neo-colonial occupation by 8,900 UN soldiers with 4,400 police, spending, more or less, $51 million a month in a country where 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. In other words, it's a paradise for the occupiers. In my view, they don't want me back because they still want to occupy Haiti.
You say you do not intend to become involved in politics, but would rather return as a citizen. Is that your vision?
Yes. Before being elected in 1990 I was teaching and now I have more to offer based on my research in linguistics and neurolinguistics on how the brain processes language. I have made a humble contribution in a country where once we had only 34 secondary schools. Before the coup we had 138 public secondary schools. Unfortunately, the earthquake destroyed most of them.
Do you think that the Haitian government is sending signals to the South African government that they do not want you to return because they are concerned about security issues?
In Latin they say: "Post hoc ergo propter hoc" or "After this, therefore because of this." How could those who wanted to kill me, who plotted the coup in 2004, be the first to care about my security? It's a logical fallacy.
Are they afraid of your political influence?
Yes. They fear the voice of the people and that fear is psychologically linked to a kind of social pathology. It's an apartheid society, unfortunately, because racism can be behind these motivations.
There was a lot of noise lately in the U.S. media about the candidacy of singer Wyclef Jean, who eventually was denied running by the CEP (Haiti's Interim Electoral Commission). Any comment about the commotion around his candidacy?
They talk about democracy, but they refuse to organize free and fair democratic elections. Last year, they said they wanted to have elections, but, in fact, they had a selection, not an election. Today, they are moving from the same to the same. They have excluded the Lavalas party, which is the party of the majority. It is as if in the U.S. they organized an election without the Democrats.
I remember a recent article from Jacqueline Charles in the Miami Herald where an historian was quoted as saying: "Lavalas was never a party. It was a movement, which is now in deep crisis and divided among distinct factions led by some of its old barons.… They all want the Lavalas vote without appealing to Aristide. So, yes, Lavalas as we knew it is dying a slow death." He was commenting on the current debate around the elections in Haiti. What do you think of what he said?
Some people pretend they are experts on Haiti, but they often act like people suffering from social amnesia. These people are unable to recognize Haitians as human beings because of our color, our poverty and misery. The majority of the Haitian people declared "Lavalas is our political party." That is what the majority said and they have their constitution, so how can someone pretend that it's not? These people have their masters giving them financial resources to say this, and they can cover themselves under a "scientific" umbrella, when in fact they are mental slaves.
So there is this amnesia because most commentators admit that Préval won in 2006 thanks to the Lavalas base. Many in Haiti want to use Lavalas as well to win, but nobody wants the Lavalas party to win or mention your name in the process. How do you feel about this contradiction?
Pro-Aristide protester in Cité Soleil in 2006
When they talk about Lavalas and the Haitian people, they fear them because if there is a fair election, the people will defeat them. So they have to exclude the Lavalas party, or the majority, in order to make sure that they will select what they want to select. So this is the kind of apartheid that they have in Haiti. If you say that, they will hate you and they may try to kill you. It is because they don't want you to see the reality.
I did my best to respect the Haitian people and I will continue to do my best to show respect for them and for their wishes. In 1990, when I was elected president, people were working in sweatshops for nine cents an hour. When I managed to raise the minimum wage, it was enough to have a coup. And it happened in Honduras last year because part of the game was: don't raise the minimum wage. So people must work as slaves.
You said that you were writing a book about the coup. Is that still in the works?
The book has been finished since 2004 and is ready to be published if I were allowed to do that.
The night of the coup do you wish you had said no to Mr. Moreno, "I am not signing this letter of resignation" or "I won't get on that plane. I will deal with the security issues in Haiti with my government?"
If I were allowed to publish the book, in the book, you have the answers to your important questions and that is why I will not elaborate on it. I would do exactly what I did and I would say exactly what I said because it was right. They were wrong and they are still wrong.
There have been these accusations of corruption against you, starting with filmmaker Raoul Peck and then by Lucy Komisar and Mary Anastasia O'Grady of the Wall Street Journal, about your personal involvement in a Teleco/IDT deal back in 2003. Can you put these accusations to rest?
First, they are lying. Second, what can we expect from a mental slave who is paid to lie? I am not surprised by these nonsensical allegations.
Would you be in favor of creating a Haitian Truth and Reconciliation Commission similar to South Africa's that would allow some of those people exiled under Duvalier and Cedras and your two presidencies to come back and ask for forgiveness and amnesty if needed?
What I will say is there is no way to move forward in Haiti without dialogue. Once we had an army of 7,000 soldiers controlling 40 percent of the national budget, moving from coup d'état to coup d'état. I said no. Let's disband the army, let's have a police force to protect the rights of every citizen, let's have dialogue to address our differences.
We still have people calling themselves friends of Haiti coming to exploit the resources. They don't want national dialogue. They don't want Haitians to live peacefully with Haitians.
What do you think of this tendency among many Western journalists to try to explain Voodoo as one of the main reasons for Haiti's problems?
I enjoy drawing parallels between voodoo and politics. Why? Because in the West when they want to address political issues, they may often mix it with voodoo as a way to avoid the truth. The truth could be, for instance, historical. Fourteen years after Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti in 1492, they had already killed three million indigenous people. Do they speak about it today? Do they know about it? At that time, one could be 14 years old and have to pay gold to Christopher Columbus or they would cut your arm or feet or ears off. Do they talk about it? Instead of focusing on what is the reality of misery, poverty, occupation, colonization, some prefer to find a scapegoat through voodoo. The UN had to expel 114 soldiers for rape and child abuse. So we see people invading a country, pretending to help, while they don't want to face our historical drama linked to colonization.
Is it a racist distraction?
It is. I respect religion and will respect any religion. Africans went to Haiti and continued their practice and I have to respect that. In addition, the Haitian constitution respects freedom of religion. So let's address the drama, misery, poverty, exploitation, occupation, and people without the right to vote or eat. People want to be free. They want self-determination.
Let's focus on people who have no resources and are dying. After the earthquake, citizens worldwide were building a wonderful solidarity with Haitians. That was great to see—whites and blacks crossing barriers of color to express solidarity with the victims.
Anything that you would like to add?
If you ask a Zulu person the way to reach somewhere while you are on the right path, that person will tell you (in Zulu): "Ugonde ngqo ngalo mgwago" which means go straight on your way. The Haitian people who are moving from misery to poverty with dignity should continue to move straight towards that goal. If we lose our dignity we lose everything. But based on that collective dignity rooted in our forefathers, I do believe we have to continue fighting in a peaceful way for our self-determination and if we do that, history will pay tribute to our generation because we are on the right path.
Nicolas Rossier is an independent filmmaker and reporter who lives in Brooklyn, New York.