Currently in forced-exile in South Africa, 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, he 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 since, that he was forced to resign at gunpoint by members of the US Embassy. US officials have claimed that he decided to resign freely following the violent uprising. He now lives in exile in South Africa where he still waits to get his diplomatic passport renewed. He is not allowed to travel outside South Africa.
Aristide is still the subject of many controversies. He is reviled by the business elite and feared by the French and American governments, who deem his populism dangerous. But he remains loved by a large portion of the Haitian population.
In a June 10 report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, "Haiti: No Leadership – No Elections”, ranking Republican member Richard Lugar denounced the systemic injustice of excluding his Fanmi Lavalas party.
Last week, independent reporter and filmmaker Nicolas Rossier, conducted an exclusive two-hour interview with former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the hills of Johannesburg. He spoke with the former President about his life in forced exile, Haiti’s current political situation, and his possible return to Haiti. This is an excerpt of the interview.
Mr. President Aristide, thank you for having me today. My first question is about the earthquake that took place in Haiti in January of 2010. Can you tell me how and when you learned about the tragedy?
It was morning here. I was at Witwatersrand University here in Johannesburg to work in the lab of the Faculty of Medicine for Linguistics and Neuroanatomy. I realized that it was a disaster in Haiti. It was not easy to believe what I was watching. We lost about 300,000 people, and in terms of the buildings, they said that about 39% of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, including fifty hospitals and about 1,350 schools. Up until today they have cleared only about 2% of these 25 million cubic meters of rubble and debris. So this was a real disaster. We could not imagine that Haiti, already facing so many problems, would now face such a disaster. Unfortunately this is the reality. I was ready to go back to help my people, just as I am ready to leave right now if they allow me to be there to help. Close to 1.8 million victims are living in the street homeless. So this is a tragedy.
Your former colleague, the current President René Préval, was highly criticized after the earthquake for being absent. Overall, he was judged as not having shown enough leadership. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
I believe that January 12, 2010 was a very bad time for the government and for the Haitian people. To have leadership, yes it was necessary, overall, to be present in a time of disaster like this one. But to criticize when you aren’t doing any better is cynical. Most of those who were criticizing him sent soldiers to protect their own geopolitical interests, not to protect the people. They seized the airport for their own interests, instead of protecting the victims – so for me there should be some balance.
Can you give us your thoughts on the recent cholera epidemic?
As for this recent incident of cholera, whether or not it was imported – as the evidence strongly suggests – it’s critical. First, those who organized the coup d’état/kidnapping of 2004, paving the way for the invaders now accused as having caused the recent outbreak of cholera, must also share the blame. Second, 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 US rice industry in the 1980s – was in the Artibonite, the epicenter of the cholera outbreak. The near destruction of our rice industry coupled with the systematic and cruel elimination of the Haitian pigs rendered the region and the country poorer. Third, 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 me the same question, which is this: 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? You are a Haitian citizen and should be allowed to move freely.
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, I think that I see the picture. The picture is that in Haiti, we have the same people who organized the invasion of 2004 after kidnapping me to put me in Africa. They are still there. That means there is a kind of neo-colonial occupation of 8,900 UN soldiers with 4,400 policemen spending, more or less, fifty-one million US dollars a month in a country where 70% of the population lives with less than a dollar a day. In other words it’s a paradise for the occupiers. First we had the colonization of Haiti and now we have a kind of neo-colonial occupation of Haiti. In my view, they don’t want me back because they still want to occupy Haiti.
So you see the elite in Haiti basically influencing those currently in power and pressuring them to prevent you from coming back? There is certainly a more friendly administration now in Washington. Are they still sending the same messages to South Africa regarding you?
No … (laughs)
I heard that you tried to go to Cuba for an urgent eye surgery and you were not allowed to go. Is this true?
Allow me to smile…(laughs) because when you look at this, you smile based on the contradiction that you observe in the picture. They pretend that they fear me when I am part of the solution, based on what the majority of the people in Haiti still continue to say. If they continue to ask for my return by demonstrating peacefully, that means you still have the problem. So if you want to solve the problem, open the door for my return.
Before the coup, I was calling for dialogue in such a way to have inclusion, not exclusion – to have cohesion, not an explosion of the social structure. The opposition, with foreign backers, decided to opt for a coup and the result is what I would say in a Hebrew saying: ?? ??? ?? ???? , in English meaning, “things went from bad to worse.” So if you they are wise, they should be the first to do their best for the return because the return is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
You have said that you do not intend to become involved in politics, but rather return as a citizen. Is that your vision?
Yes, and I said it because this is what I was doing before being elected in 1990. I was teaching and now I have more to offer based on my research in linguistics and neurolinguistics, which is research on how the brain processes language. I have made a humble contribution in a country where once we had only 34 secondary schools when I was elected 1990, and before the coup of 2004 we had 138 public secondary schools. Unfortunately the earthquake destroyed most of them. Why are they so afraid? It’s irrational. Sometimes people who want to understand Haiti from a political perspective may be missing part of the picture. They also need to look at Haiti from a psychological perspective. Most of the elite suffer from psychogenic amnesia. That means it’s not organic amnesia, such as damage caused by brain injury. It’s just a matter of psychology. So this pathology, this fear, has to do with psychology, and as long as we don’t have that national dialogue where fear would disappear, they may continue to show fear where there is no reason to be afraid.
What has to be done for you to be able to return to Haiti? What do you intend to do to make that happen? It’s been six years now. It must be very tough for you not to be able to return with your family. You must feel very homesick.
There is a Swahili proverb which says: “Mapenzi ni kikohozi, hayawezi kufichika” – or “love is like cough that you cannot hide.”
I love my people and my country, and I cannot hide it, and because of that love, I am ready to leave right now. I cannot hide it. What is preventing me from leaving, as I said earlier, if I look from South Africa, I don’t know.
But when you ask the question to the people responsible here, they say they don’t know.
Well (pause) I am grateful to South Africa, and I will always be grateful to South Africa and Africa as our mother continent. But I think something could be done in addition to what has been done in order to move faster towards the return, and that is why, as far as I am concerned, I say, and continue to say that I am ready. I am not even asking for any kind of logistical help because friends could come here and help me reach my country in two days. So I did all that I could.
Do you think that the Haitian government is sending signals to the South African government that they are not ready? For instance, maybe they do not want you to return because they are concerned about security issues for you. The Haitian government may not be able to ensure your security. There are some individuals who, for ideological reasons, don’t support you and could go as far as to try to assassinate you. Is that part of the problem?
In Latin they say: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” or "after this, therefore because of this." It’s a logical fallacy. In 1994, when I returned home, they said the same: if he comes back the sky will fall. I was back during a very difficult time where I included members of the opposition in my government, moving our way through dialogue in order to heal the country. But unfortunately we did not have a justice system, which could provide justice to all the victims at once. However slowly, through the Commission of Truth and Justice, we were paving the way to have justice. Now I will not come back as a head of state, but as a citizen. If I am not afraid to be back in my country, how could those who wanted to kill me, who plotted to have the coup in 2004, be the first to care about my security? It’s a logical fallacy. (laughs) They are hiding, or try to hide themselves behind something that is too small…no no no no.
Are they afraid of your political influence – afraid that you can affect change?
Yes, and I will encourage those who want to be logical (laughs), not to fear the people, because when they say they fear me, basically it’s not me. It’s the people, in a sense that they fear the votes of the people. 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.
I can fear you, not for good reasons, but because I hate you and I cannot say that I hate you. You see? So we need a society rooted in equality. We are all equal, rich and poor and we need a society where the people enjoy their rights. But once you speak this way, it becomes a good reason for you to be pushed out of the country or to be kidnapped as I was (laughs). But there is no way out without that dialogue and mutual respect. This is the way out.
In your view, what is the last element missing for you to go back? You said there was one more thing they could do for you do go back. Can you tell us that?
They just need to be reasonable. The minute they decide to be reasonable, the return will happen right away.
And that means one phone call into the US State Department ? One green light from one person? Technically, what does that mean?
Technically I would say that the Haitian government, by being reasonable, would stop violating the constitution and say clearly that the people voted for the return as well. The constitution wants us to respect the right of citizens, so we don’t accept exile. That would be the first step.
Now if other forces would oppose my return, they would come clear and oppose it but as long as we don’t start with a decision from the Haitian government, it makes things more difficult.
So the first gesture has to come from the Haitian government?
And they could make this happen by telling the US State Department you should be allowed to come back, and should come back.
They would not have to tell the State Department.
So it’s not a political decision in Washington? It’s between the Haitian government and the South African government?
As a matter of fact, I don’t have a passport because it is expired. I have the right to a diplomatic passport. By sending me a normal diplomatic passport there would be a clear signal of their will to respect the constitution.
But it’s the Haitian government that has to do that?
Or they could just renew your Haitian passport?
Ask you for a new photo of yourself and issue a new passport?
(laughs) You see why when I said earlier that we should not continue to play as a puppet government in the hands of those who pretend to be friends of Haiti. I am right because as long as we continue to play like that we are not moving from good to better or good to good, but from bad to worse.
There was a lot of noise lately in the US 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 whole commotion around his candidature?
When we say democracy we have to mean what we say. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Haiti. They talk about democracy but they refuse to organize free and fair democratic elections. Is it because of a kind of neocolonial occupation? Is it because they still want exclusion and not inclusion that they refused to organize free and fair democratic elections?