After seven years in exile, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide today returned to Haiti and vowed to dedicate himself to his nation's health and education even amid fears that his presence will disrupt Sunday’s election.
“My role is to serve you in love,” the former priest said during remarks in which he switched between a handful of languages, including Creole and Zulu, the language of South Africa where he has lived in exile since a 2004 ouster.
Aristide, who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president on a groundswell of support from the poor in 1990, remains a popular a political figure in Haiti. While he says he has no plans to reenter politics, the timing of his return would potentially qualify him to run for president in the next election under Haiti’s residency rules, which say a candidate must reside in Haiti for the five years before the election.
“Aristide cannot return to Haiti without having a politically significant presence,” says Ericq Pierre, a senior counselor for the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti. “Politically he should be dead after two coup d’états. But now he looks stronger than ever.”
Aristide arrived to hordes of journalists and a few thousand cheering supporters. His wife, Mildred, who wept as she deplaned, actor and political activist Danny Glover, and a few others accompanied Aristide on the overnight flight from Johannesburg.
“This country needs education with dignity without social exclusion. The solution is inclusion,” he said Friday.
In returning to Haiti, Aristide defied international pressure. President Obama telephoned South African President Jacob Zuma Tuesday urging him to delay Aristide’s return until after Sunday’s election.
“A return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing to the political process,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a briefing this week.
His political endorsement – yet unannounced – could tip the balance in Sunday's run-off presidential election between former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The delayed vote follows a first round in November that was marred by fraud, widespread confusion, and historically low turnout.
Aristide was twice elected president and twice deposed and forced into exile. His second ouster, in 2004, came under pressure from the US, which arranged for his flight out of the country, he says.
Aristide’s command of Creole and oration were a stark contrast from the Duvalierist culture of privilege and excess. He won a huge following among Haiti’s majority poor by opposing the dictatorial regime of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who fled in 1986. In January, Mr. Duvalier also returned from exile, in France.
A once-overwhelmingly popular force, Aristide is today a polarizing figure.
Supporters say he stood for the poor and that his return will only help a country struggling to recover from last January’s devastating earthquake and a cholera epidemic. “Aristide’s return will be good for all Haitians,” says Haitian journalist Wisley Desalan, who flew to South Africa recently to interview the former president. “He will work with all Haitians in Health and education.”
Detractors say Aristide’s last term was marred by corruption and human rights abuses.
“Officials in Aristide’s government used their public office as personal fiefdoms, engaged in rampant corruption and drug-trafficking; they even used gangs, some of whom were armed, against their opponents,” Alex Dupuy, author on the book “The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti,” wrote in a column for The Guardian on Friday.
“I don’t expect him to endorse either candidate … or play a role in the election. It doesn’t make sense for him,” Professor Carey says. “He has other things to worry about. There are still people who probably want to kill him.”
But in the long-term, Carey believes Aristide will move back to politics. While the Constitution forbids presidents from serving more than two terms, some argue that Aristide never finished his second term and so could run again for office.
If his intentions are political, Aristide will need to rebuild his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, which was barred from running a candidate in this election.
Patrick Elie, a former minister under Aristide, says the party crumbled in Aristide’s absence.
"Aristide was a crutch for someone who broke their leg, one should always be grateful for a crutch, but one should start walking again without a crutch,” he says.