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Aristide’s Planned Return Trip to Haiti After Seven Years in Exile


Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! host reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Katherine Kean (K.K.), award-winning filmmaker and a personal friend of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has decided to return to Haiti this week ahead of Sunday’s presidential runoff election. Aristide has lived in exile in South Africa since 2004, when he was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup. Amy Goodman is in South Africa to cover Aristide’s return to Haiti. She joins us now from Johannesburg.

Welcome, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Juan. Hi, Juan. It’s great to be with you, and quite amazing what is going to be taking place here in this historic country, South Africa, to do with the history of another historic country, Haiti. We flew in from New York earlier today to Oliver Tambo Airport. And just, that is amazing in itself, right? He was the former president of the ANC, the late president of the African National Congress, one of the great anti-apartheid leaders. When we came in from the plane, the first image was that of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa. And on all the wings of the planes are the flag of the new country of South Africa—you know, in 1994, not so new—but the symbol of a peaceful revolution that took place in this country.

Now, the reason we are here, though, is because President Aristide, as you said, is returning to South Africa before—is returning to Haiti before the Sunday elections that will be taking place for a new president in Haiti. This is truly historic.

Regular listeners and viewers to Democracy Now! may remember back to 2004, to the second coup against Aristide. The first was in 1991, unfortunately a U.S-backed coup that threw the democratically elected president out of office. The second was in 1994, when he was reelected, again a U.S.-backed coup. Democracy Now! was on the plane to the Central African Republic to Bangi, where he was flown into exile by U.S. military and U.S. security. We went in a small delegation that was led by Maxine Waters, the Los Angeles Congress member; Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica; and others, to return the Aristides to the Western hemisphere, amidst, at the time, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, Secretary of State at the time, warning the Aristides they were not to return to the Western hemisphere, to which Randall Robinson responded, when we are on the flight, "Whose hemisphere are they talking about?" And now—they returned to Jamaica, ultimately in exile in South Africa, where they have been for the last seven years. Now the Aristides are attempting to return to their country, to Haiti.

I’m joined right now by K.K. Kean. We will both be on the plane, though last-minute negotiations are taking place between, well, the government of South Africa, the U.S., which is putting tremendous pressure on the government of South Africa not to return the Aristides to Haiti and putting pressure on the Haitian government. As I was on that plane—and K.K. Kean was, as well, the renowned filmmaker who’s made many films on Haiti, most recently called Rezistans, covered the coup in 1991 and has done many films since. We are going to hopefully return on this plane again, with the Aristides, to chronicle this historic journey of the Aristides and their two daughters to their country, to Haiti.

K.K., as you join us now, talk about the significance of this return of the Aristides, though last-minute negotiations are taking place, even as we speak, with the tremendous pressure that’s being brought to bear on the Aristides and the South African and Haitian governments by the U.S.

K.K.: OK, thank you, Amy, and it’s a pleasure to be here. It’s certainly a pleasure to be part of this long-awaited return, which we hope will actually take place this time.

The Aristides have been in exile here in South Africa for seven years, always wanting to go home, always looking for an opportunity. At this point, they’ve been given passports by the Haitian government. So, according to the Haitian government, it’s fine for them to return. However, there’s an election next Sunday, and, no matter what happens, the Haitian government will change. And we’re far less secure of the new Haitian government, whether they will allow Aristide to return or not. So, this is the reason that it’s a small window of opportunity, which Aristide and his friends are trying to take opportunity of.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Amy and K.K., on Monday, the U.S. State Department urged former President Aristide to postpone his trip.

MARK TONER: However, 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. We would urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded, to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere. Return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing to the political process.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was State Department spokesperson Mark Toner. On Monday, we asked Aristide’s attorney, Ira Kurzban, to respond.

IRA KURZBAN: President Aristide’s desire to return home is unrelated to the election, but to a desire to be in Haiti to carry on his educational work. However, he is genuinely concerned that a change in the Haitian government may result in his remaining in South Africa. The Department of State has previously said that this is a decision for the Haitian government. They should leave the decision to the democratically elected government, instead of seeking to dictate the terms under which a Haitian citizen may return to his country.

The State Department statement today is full of misinformation. The claim that President Aristide voluntarily left Haiti and could have returned the past seven years is belied by the U.S. government’s active involvement in his removal as the democratically elected president of Haiti and their active role in ensuring that he remained, and apparently remains, in South Africa.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Ira Kurzban, President Aristide’s longtime lawyer. Amy, your sense of why it’s so important at this critical time, just before the election, for President Aristide to return?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, it’s very interesting to hear the wording of Mark Toner’s statement. Before that, well, now the resigned P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesperson, who had actually tweeted out at an earlier time that the Aristides should not be returning.

Aristide is a Haitian citizen. He was the president of Haiti, but he will return as a resident of Haiti. And, you know, right now, I have just seen a letter that’s being circulated to lawyers and law professors around the United States, where they are calling on Cheryl Mills, the chief of staff of the Department of State, to—criticizing the State Department’s statement, saying that he has every right to return. Also, the significance of who is in the State Department, people who understand that well, like Harold Koh, used to head the human rights clinic at Yale University, like Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, who used to be head of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which is now called Human Rights First—the issue of the human rights and the right of freedom of expression and of a Haitian citizen to return home, of a Haitian family to return home. This is a critical moment right now. The negotiations are taking place behind the scenes. The safety of this trip is extremely important. And the pressure that the U.S. has continually brought to bear on President Aristide is one that is very important to highlight.

The U.S. can change its role in the troubled relationship it has had in Haiti, since the very beginning. I mean, in 1804, Haiti was the first black republic, born of a slave uprising, the only country in the world, and the U.S. government would not recognize the republic of Haiti for decades, because congressmen at that time were afraid that the slave uprising would inspire slaves in the United States. So you go back to that time, and you see the history. Again, in 1991 and 2004, the U.S. role in the coups against the democratically elected leader, President Aristide. So, to change that troubled history, especially in a country that is undergoing so much right now—we’re looking at the earthquake in Japan, so horrific. Let’s remember also the earthquake in Haiti that killed so many hundreds of thousands of people, then the cholera outbreak. Haiti needs a break. Haiti needs to be able to assert itself, not with the intervention of other countries, but aiding the rebuilding of Haiti. And President Aristide has always been a part of that.

One last thing, Juan, I just wanted to bring K.K. in. You know, she has been here seven years in South Africa documenting the Aristides’ stay here, in fact documenting when President Aristide got his doctorate, another doctorate, here in South Africa.

K.K.: That is, I’ve made seven trips to South Africa. I haven’t been here for seven years. But yes, President Aristide was honored by UNISA, one of the largest universities in the world. He was given a doctorate in philosophy and African languages. And I documented that and also filmed him talking about his thesis, which was called "Umoya Wamagama," which means "The Spirit of the Words" and talks about similarities in Creole and African languages.

AMY GOODMAN: And his meeting with Nelson Mandela? He had a meeting with Nelson Mandela.

K.K.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. But Mbeki was the president at that time and was present at the ceremony, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was—

K.K.: This film was shown on Haitian television, which was very important at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I will be back with you, Juan, at the end of the broadcast to look at this only—the only nuclear country in Africa, as we look at the catastrophe that is unfolding in Japan, not only the earthquake, but the catastrophes at the nuclear plants there. Juan, you had a question?

JUAN GONZALEZ: OK, alright. No, Amy, so we’ll be back with you later on in the show, as we’re going to take a break now, and then we’re going to move to Japan and the continuing and heartbreaking crisis both of the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the escalating nuclear crisis there.

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