Rickey Singh, Trinidad Express
March 19, 2011
As Haitians trek to polling stations across that Caricom partner state today for the second round presidential run-off, there remains a puzzling political question for clarification:
Why has the United States administration of President Barack Obama been so intense within the past month in urging the former Haitian president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, to not consider returning to his homeland ahead of today’s election?
Well, at the time of writing, Aristide, the former popular Roman Catholic priest, who was thrice freely elected president of Haiti—and thrice ousted from power by coups in a period of some 13 years (between 1991 and 2004)—had defied US official “advice” and was back in Haiti on Friday.
He had travelled with his family the previous day from South Africa, the country of choice for his forced exile that lasted some seven years, after being ousted from power, with involvement of the USA and France, in February 2004. Amid widespread political turmoil, he was flown out of Haiti on a US military aircraft without any prior knowledge of his final destination.
His lawyer of long standing, Ira Kurzban, explained last week that Aristide was concerned that a new administration in Port-au-Prince “might try to block his return home” if he waited until after today’s run-off election.
But the recurring question that will not go away is: Why has the US State Department been showing such public interest in discouraging Aristide from returning home following his public statement last January that he was ready to return to Haiti, and. had applied for a new diplomatic passport?
Aristide’s mass-based Fanmi Lavalas party which, incidentally, was controversially excluded from participating in last November’s parliamentary and presidential elections by Haiti’s Electoral Council, was rejoicing over his return home when some 168 lawyers, law professors
and human rights advocates based in the USA, were denouncing in media statements “gross interference” with the “personal rights” of the deposed president and “the domestic affairs” of his country.
For the legal director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights it was simply “outrageous” that the US should seek to control when a former Haitian president “can enter Haiti” and, in the process “violates a stack of binding international human rights treaties”.
And Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy, has argued that the US attempts to frustrate Aristide from returning to his country ahead of today’s poll was quite contradictory by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s “promotion of democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East”.
From a Caribbean perspective, it is also relevant to note Caricom governments’ collective failure to distance themselves from the US administration’s diplomatic manoeuvres—even to lean on South Africa—to keep Aristide away from Haiti until after today’s crucial run-off poll.
The Community’s Heads of Government, among them outgoing Haitian President Rene Preval, had nothing to say on this sensitive political issue in their eight-page communique released at the conclusion of their two-day meeting (February 25-26) in Grenada.
However, readers may well recall that successive administrations in Washington have demonstrated a peculiar obsession with the presence in Haiti of Aristide —whether or not he is functioning as president of that Caribbean nation that continues to languish in a state of permanent crisis.
The unsolicited advice publicly given by the US State Department that he should delay returning home until after today’s scheduled presidential run-off was the latest example.
On all three occasions when Aristide was forced out of power, having been democratically elected at all times, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been an accomplice, along with identified corrupt Haitian political and military leaders.
During that period, in contrast, former US president Bill Clinton was to distinguish his leadership in Washington by the firm support he had provided for Aristide’s return to power in October 1994.
By 2004, amid orchestrated domestic political turmoil, the administration of then president George W Bush was to play a leading role, along with France, in ousting Aristide from power after ignoring an alternative democratic approach by the governments of Caricom.
When the unprecedented earthquake-triggered devastation of Haiti occurred in January last year, Aristide was lamenting his absence from Haiti and shown an interest to be back among ‘my fellow Haitians’.
Following the surprise return to the country of ex-dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, Aristide applied for a new Haitian passport and signaled plans to return soon. However, once the passport was delivered he started to experience unexplained complications in official arrangements, including security, to return home.
He thought it necessary then to explain, and subsequently reaffirmed, that he has no interest in becoming involved in the political squabbles over the controversial outcome of last November’s parliamentary elections or in the outcome of today’s second round presidential poll.
Early last month, then US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley was to go public with a claim that Aristide’s return to Haiti before the second round presidential run-off “would be an unfortunate distraction, and that the two participating candidates (Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly) should be focus at this time”.
That contention, as voiced by Crowley, provoked an immediate angry protest demonstration by Haitians, including militant activists of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, who had cried “no Aristide, no second round (election)”.
As if bent on pursuing a course of action to deter Aristide from returning home before the run-off poll, a new State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, was to emerge by last weekend to sound a warning with an even more disturbing overtone.
For Toner, Aristide’s return before today’s decisive vote, “can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections”, and that Washington was also depending on the co-operation of the South African government to dissuade him from doing to at this time.
Well Aristide is now back home and the presidential poll is taking place. For many Haitians, he remains a symbol of hope. For others, his presence stirs fears and anger over past claims of political wrongdoings as well as uncertainty about the future.
Nevertheless, during his seven years in exile, no credible information was provided by either governments in Port-au-Prince or administrations in Washington (Republican or Democrat), that he has a political agenda to disturb the peace (sic) in Haiti; to affect the conduct of the second round presidential run-off or to engage in any activity that could further add to the endless miseries of his country.
Whatever their own reservations and concerns, the governments of Caricom may have missed a good opportunity to speak, unequivocally, on the fundamental right of the deposed legitimate president of Haiti to return to his homeland, whenever he so determines, and that this should not be based on the thinking and agenda of an administration in Washington.
For now we await the outcome of today’s run-off election to know whether former first lady, Manigat (70), or the popular pop singer Martelly (50) will be the winner to shortly take the oath as Haiti’s newly-elected president—a development for which Aristide (53) would perhaps be a most significant observer.
There is the further recognition that, irrespective of who gets the presidential prize, it would not change the harsh reality that it would have resulted from a flawed electoral process for both parliamentary and presidential elections, including the period of registration of parties and eligibility of candidates, right up to the verification of valid votes.