Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s triumphant return to Haiti after seven years of forced exile in South Africa signals a new stage in the Caribbean country’s popular and democratic struggle just as a resurgent right wing prepares to lay electoral claim—for the first time ever—to the country’s presidency in a controversial US-backed presidential poll on Sunday.
“Today may the Haitian people mark the end of exile and coup d’état, while peacefully we must move from social exclusion to social inclusion,” said Aristide, referring to the bloody 2004 US-backed coup, the second time he was driven from power after being elected with huge popular majorities.
Aristide’s return comes at a key turning point in the country’s history. Bolstered by a 14,000-strong UN military occupation known as MINUSTAH, and massive international aid following the January 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s tiny right-wing elite have become stronger, economically and politically, than at any time in the last twenty-five years.
This has been dramatically underscored by the return of former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from France earlier this year and an openly fraudulent electoral process that has barred Haiti’s most popular political party —Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas—from participation and put forth two right-wing candidates.
Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, 50, a popular konpa musician, faces off against Mirlande Manigat, 70, the wife, and some say surrogate, of a former right-wing president. Both candidates backed the 1991 and the 2004 coups against Aristide and support the return of the Haitian army, which Aristide disbanded in 1995.
“The international community is imposing their will, using the guns of the UN troops, to impose two very right-wing candidates with Duvalierist elements on the Haitian people,” noted Pierre Labossière of the San Francisco-based Haiti Action Committee.
Aristide’s return, which threatens the resurgent neo-Duvalierist movement and represents a victory for the popular movement, changes the political equation, according to many grassroots activists.
The extent of Aristide’s influence is clear from recently released Wikileaks cables.
A June 2005 State Department cable describes the US and Brazilian governments agreeing “that all efforts must be made to keep Aristide from returning to Haiti or influencing the political process.” In another just released 2005 cable, US and French diplomats threatened to block South Africa’s seating on the UN Security Council unless South African President Thabo Mbeki managed to keep Aristide in exile there.
The French said Aristide’s return would be “catastrophic” and even plotted to hinder Aristide in the logistics of reaching Haiti by air from South Africa.