guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 15 March 2011
Jean-Bertrand Aristide's picture is held up by a demonstrator protesting against Haiti's President René Préval. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP
The arrogance of Washington's renewed efforts to thwart former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to Haiti from a seven-year exile in South Africa is mind-boggling.
During the 29 February 2004 coup d'état, in the middle of the night, a US Navy Seal team, under the direction of American deputy ambassador Luis Moreno, kidnapped President Aristide and his wife Mildred from their home in Tabarre and flew them, under guard in an unmarked US jet, into a first stint of exile in the Central African Republic. Since then, tens of thousands from all over Haiti have taken to the streets several times each year to demand his return.
During the US-appointed post-coup de facto government of Prime Minister Gérard Latortue (2004-2006), Haitian police and United Nations occupation troops regularly gunned down the demonstrators and carried out murderous assaults on Aristide strongholds in popular neighborhoods like Cité Soleil and Belair, killing dozens of residents, including women and children. When in late March 2004, US Congresswoman Maxine Waters and a team of other VIPs rescued the Aristides from virtual house arrest in CAR and flew them in a private jet to Jamaica, the Bush administration was livid. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice spent an hour on the phone threatening then Prime Minister PJ Patterson to get Aristide out of there.
"We think it's a bad idea," she later told the press, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that "the hope is that he will not come back into the hemisphere and complicate [the] situation." Three months later, Aristide was flown to South Africa.
Now, once again, the Obama administration is taking the same positions and using the same language as its predecessor, which candidate Obama once vowed never to do.
Last month, Aristide finally received his long-denied passport. Later this week, the South African government is planning to fly him back to Haiti in a government jet. But now we have the US state department's new spokesperson, Mark Toner, sanctimoniously telling 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", and that his "return prior to the election may potentially be destabilising to the political process."
And what "political process" is this?
A runoff between two neo-Duvalierist candidates: former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and former konpa musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly. The problem? The election is illegal. Only four of the eight-member Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) have voted to proceed with the second round, one short of the five necessary. Furthermore, the first round results have not been published in the journal of record, Le Moniteur, and President René Préval has not officially convoked Haitians to vote – both constitutional requirements.
"In this election, it is the United Nations and Organisation of American States [OAS], both acting on Washington's behalf, who are convoking the people to vote for the candidates whom they have designated," a grassroots organiser told Haïti Liberté. (Last month, the OAS forced the CEP – constitutionally, the "final arbiter" of Haitian elections – to replace Jude Célestin, the candidate of Préval's party, with Martelly in the runoff.)
Why might Aristide be anxious to return to Haiti before 20 March? First, President Préval has already exceeded his mandate, which ended on 7 February. This makes his position weak and contested. Add to this the reality that, in Haiti, a president-elect becomes the de facto power even before his inauguration. Therefore, after 20 March, it might be impossible for Aristide to safely return to Haiti.
Aristide first came to power 20 years ago as the champion of the people's uprising against the Duvalier dictatorship and the neo-Duvalierist juntas that followed its 7 February 1986 fall. Seven months after his inauguration, President Aristide was overthrown by a US-backed neo-Duvalierist military putsch on 30 September 1991. "Sweet Micky" was one of the principal cheerleaders of this three-year coup, which claimed some 5,000 lives, according to Amnesty International.
In the years following Aristide's restoration to power in 1994, Martelly became obsessed with hatred for the man. In a video from not too long ago, which can be seen on YouTube, the candidate threatens a patron in a bar where he has performed. "All those shits were Aristide's faggots," he says. "I would kill Aristide to stick a dick up your ass."
Martelly is close to Col Michel François, perhaps the 1991 coup's principal mastermind and executioner. François led soldiers who machine-gunned hundreds of demonstrators in front of the National Palace on 30 September, as a fact-finding delegation led by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark learned three months after the coup.
Manigat is not much better. She is the wife, and many say the proxy, of former Haitian President Leslie Manigat. He was a perennial rightwing candidate who came to power in a 1988 election that was run and rigged by a neo-Duvalierist military junta. The rest of Haiti boycotted that election because the junta and its death squads had shot and macheted would-be voters in an aborted contest two months earlier. But Manigat and his wife had no scruples about climbing over the corpses of the November 1987 election massacre to go take up residence in the national palace. Four months later, the junta evicted them when he got too big for his britches. Mirlande Manigat has also declared her opposition to Aristide's return "before the election".
Let's imagine that the US succeeds in ramming this bogus election (Haitians call it a "selection") down the people's throats and that Aristide tries to return after 20 March. He would likely be met by policemen upon landing in Port-au-Prince. But the cops would not escort him to a luxury hotel, as they did former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier when he returned, without a squeak of US or French protest, from 25 years of exile on 16 January. Instead, Martelly's or Manigat's police would likely take Aristide directly to jail, or worse.
As his lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said, Aristide "is genuinely concerned that a change in the Haitian government may result in his remaining in South Africa". But if Aristide does arrive as planned, later this week, before the election, his mere presence in the country will eclipse the contrived hoopla of the Manigat/Martelly contest. Although they may not be able to stop the US/OAS gambit, the Haitian people may be able to mount a successful boycott, as Haitian voters did in the April and June 2009 elections, where turnout was less than 5%.
Many grassroots groups are calling for another massive boycott now to discredit the "mascarade", as they refer to it. Already, only 23% of the Haitian electorate took part in the first round (the lowest turnout for a presidential election in Haiti, or anywhere in Latin America, in the past 60 years) – in large part because Aristide's party, the Lavalas Family, was arbitrarily and unjustly excluded.
"The department of state has previously said that [Aristide's return] is a decision for the Haitian government," Kurzban said. "They should leave that decision to the democratically elected government instead of seeking to dictate the terms under which a Haitian citizen may return to his country."
Aristide's return this week is essential – because he wants it, the Haitian people want it, and, perhaps most importantly, Washington and the Duvalierists do not.
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