For the seven years since he was overthrown in a coup in February 2004 there have been many different speculations about why Aristide never returned to Haiti. People argued that his exile in South Africa was comfortable, that he had fled in 2004 out of fear for his life and didn't return because of that same fear, that he was waiting for the moment when he could return to power.
A simpler explanation probably holds: he never returned because he could not. When he was first ovethrown, remember, he was sent to the Central African Republic and was only rescued by an international group of journalists (Randall Robinson's book "An Unbroken Agony" covers this rescue in detail). When he came back as close as Jamaica, the US threatened the entire country to a point where Aristide had to leave the region and go to South Africa, where he stayed. This all happened in the early weeks and months after the coup, when activists from the movement that brought Aristide to power (Lavalas) and members of the ousted government were being murdered, raped, and jailed.
From the 2004 coup until 2006, the country was under occupation and without an elected government. The US, and to a lesser extent Canada and France, controlled much of what went on. The military muscle for keeping the country pacified was supplied by a reconstituted Haitian police and, perversely, the United Nations commanded by Brazil. In 2006, Rene Preval was elected (despite efforts to the contrary by the US and others who rule Haiti) but in the five years since, the structure controlling Haiti – a mix of US and allies, the UN, and NGOs – hasn't changed. Haitians do not rule Haiti, and have not since 2004.
Even when Aristide was in power, he, like Preval, was highly constrained. Most of the tiny government budget, which had to serve 8-9 million people, came from foreign donors or loans and was vulnerable to being cut off at US whim (which is what happened). The US also had ample opportunities to subvert Haitian armed groups, including ex-soldiers from the army which Aristide had abolished, the Haitian police (through various international training programs) and paramilitaries. The US and allies also exercised political influence by giving money to Haitian opposition and media, as they do everywhere, but the strategy is more successful in countries that lack the resources to do patronage of their own.
Against all this, Aristide had the possibility of mobilizing the people, as he was a movement politician with an immense popular base. The story of Haiti, of Aristide and Preval in and out of power, is the story of the popular movement struggling against imposition and domination from outside (a struggle documented in Peter Hallward's book "Damming the Flood").
Because the opposition was so powerful and, ultimately, successful, Aristide's government was only able to achieve some modest goals: some successes in health and education, the abolition of the army, a drastic reduction in political violence, and the legal precedent of stepping down and handing power to an elected government (when Aristide handed power over to Preval in 1995). In the years since the coup, many of these gains were undone. The country was occupied by foreign forces who proved efficient at facilitating the decimation of the popular movement. The 2010 earthquake completely devastated the country and set health, education, and development goals back massively. US electoral interference was ultimately successful as well, such that Haiti's runoff election this week features two right-wing, pro-US candidates. Lavalas, the major political force in the country, had been excluded from the beginning.
So, why is Aristide returning now? Or, to put it another way, why is he being allowed to return now? Part of the answer could be in the political details, part in the overall situation.
Rene Preval, the current President of Haiti, is now the lamest of ducks. Wikileaks cables show that he feared being forced into exile like Aristide. There was massive and constant pressure on him to give in to the US on a huge range of issues since 2006. He had favoured Jude Celestin for President, but US interference and pressure forced Celestin out of the race (even though he should have been in the runoff), and Preval was forced to accede. Now that Preval is on his way out regardless and his successor is also out of the running, if the US had been pressuring Preval to keep Aristide out of Haiti (through denying a visa, etc.), that pressure would be at its weakest now, since Preval has very little to gain or lose. The occupation of Haiti is becoming increasingly unpopular in Brazil and other Latin American countries involved in it.
On the other hand, this is not a moment of massive strength for the popular movement and Aristide is not returning because the movement forced the US to give in and let him return. Had he been able to return in the first few months after the coup, much of the damage might have been reversed and Haiti might have been able to continue to move forward. Today though, the goals of the coup in containing the popular movement and the society have been accomplished, and indeed consolidated, by the earthquake and a year of Haitians having to live in camps without much meaningful reconstruction. Aristide's presence as a private citizen and activist can't do much to change any of this, and the US must know that too. Instead, if things get worse in Haiti, Aristide will be convenient to blame, whatever he's doing or not doing, as he was during his in South Africa.
Aristide should have been able to go home long ago, and it is only just that he is going home now. But justice for the crimes against Haiti requires a good deal more than this.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.