Maureen Isaacson, Sudnay Independent (SA), Jun. 13
The United Nations is a failure, says Jean Baptiste Aristide, the former Haitian president. And he is relieved that the United States-backed Organisation of American States is investigating his unlawful ousting.
Aristide fled Haiti on February 29 during a coup he insists “had the blessing of the UN”.
“For me the investigation means we are standing for truth and we are still for the same truth.”
Truth and lies are the two categories that cleave Aristide’s world and he would like to set the record straight against “the huge international disinformation campaign” that paints him as a despotic scoundrel.
Aristide says the campaign is funded by economic and political forces who have paid $60 million (about R390 million) a year — last year it was $76 million — to slur his good name and that of the world’s first country to be liberated from slavery.
Among the villains of this story are France, Haiti’s old colonial master, and the US, which, Aristide says, stoke violence to prove that black people are incapable of self rule.
“Is it because we are black that they don’t want the truth to emerge from us?” he asks.
“Is it because Haiti has so many economic possibilities that today they want us to be militarised, destroyed?”
“They”, says Aristide, are the intellectuals, academics and writers and the world’s great political and economic powers, “who spent 200 years hiding the truth regarding the first black independent country in the world”.
No wonder they wanted to prevent the bicentennial celebrations that Aristide enjoyed while still in the hot seat in January this year, and which he says Mbeki was “intelligent” enough to attend.
Aristide also wants me to know that as we speak hundreds and thousands of non-violent protesters, their t-shirts bearing the imprint of his face, are calling for his return. Many are being killed for less.
His people still continue to die for their democratic vote, he says. He reminds me of the slogan: “one human being, one vote . . . A bag of rice when I left Haiti cost Haitian $150 today it is Haitian $500.”
Aristide is a small man with a big personality and a unique story. Twice deposed as president of his country, he has landed on our shores as a guest with Mildred Trouillot, his wife, and their daughters, Christine, 7, and Michaelle, 5.
Our invitation followed a request by the Caribbean Community and the African Union. Of course, he cannot say how long he is going to stay and lay to rest the fears of some South Africans that President Thabo Mbeki’s new best friend is here for a free ride, forever.
After all, it is only a few days since he arrived at the guest house in Waterkloof Ridge, outside Pretoria, with its searingly beautiful view of a slice of “the mother continent”.
“Coming back I feel those 15 000 slaves who were brought from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean return now through me”. South Africa is his “home from home”. Aristide is a descendant of peasant stock from Port-Salut, born July 15 1953.
“When I am here I feel that President Mbeki and his government, the South African people are doing what our African forefathers did: opening the doors. We are still sharing those same human values, not that that means black and black, no, no, no, we are talking about something which crosses colour and nationalities.”
This is the transcendent language of a man forced to become a professional exile and to carry his home within. His inner life is rich. In one of his seven published books he wrote: “Je suis ce que j’etais, pour etre ce que je serai” (I am what I was in order to be the one I will be).
Aristide speaks with a mellifluous French Creole accent. Ordained in the Catholic church in 1983, he was expelled from the Salien order for inciting class struggle and hatred and gave up the priesthood in 1995 when he founded the Famni Lavalas/FL party.
He still speaks the language of liberation theology and of love. “Becoming a politician I do not say that I do not care about my God.”
He compares the role of a head of state to that of a mother who loves and educates her children. In 1990 after the first democratic election, in which Aristide was elected president, there were only 34 secondary schools in Haiti. Now there are 138.
“Is this not love?” he says.
He insists that he has not relinquished his faith in Catholicism, nor has he turned to voodoo, as people suspected when he issued a decree last year legalising the practice of all religions in keeping with his own constitution.
In Haiti Aristide has been hounded by Catholics who believed this decree signalled his withdrawal from the faith. But his appearance earlier this week at an Anglican church in Alexandra township — another home from home — had no significance in this regard, he insists.
“The best way I can show I am a good Catholic is to continue to give my life for human beings.” He agrees that voodoo is used as a cliché of abuse by the West, a way of depicting the black man as inept, weird, different and incapable of order.
It is equally untrue that Bill Clinton, the former US president, used voodoo to gain votes in his election campaign, he says. A small entourage, including Mildred Aristide and security people, who gathered around Aristide during this interview, laugh.
But his concerns are serious. Solidarity means that people are not isolated from each other — and this is not voodoo, he says, it is the claim of every philosopher from Hegel to Kant.
He insists he does not follow any specific revolutionary theory, but he does say: “One cannot just praise the market as if the market will bring all the solutions. You need to promote human growth as well as economic growth. Tomorrow we will be happier when less people suffer from illiteracy and from Aids.”
Aristide says he legalised all religions because freedom of worship is as important to him as freedom of expression.
“If I love you I have to allow you to worship in the way that you want to. I can say three times that I am proud of allowing the media and the opposition to have their say. I am proud that I have achieved this more than any of the leaders before me.”
A reminder that in 1986 Aristide led a revolt against the bloody regime of Baby Doc Duvalier is untimely. “Do not compare me with Duvalier!” he warns.
A “disinformation campaign” marks Aristide’s name in the reports of organisations such as Amnesty International. But he flatly denies the oppression and even murder of journalists during his time in power.
Jean Leopold Dominique, a radio journalist, whose murder in April 2000 remains unresolved, was “a brother”.
Aristide was close to Dominique’s widow, Michel Montas. He describes an intriguing world of set-ups and gun shots by convicted thugs, a world of maladministration of justice and chronic corruption.
He describes a climate of intense violence, where forces against his own rule supply the Chimeres, a gang of Aristide-supporters, with weapons to go to war with the opposition Cannibal army.
“They [the police] do not arrest the drug dealers who, as we talk, are still in control in the streets of Port-au-Prince. Once you are poor you do not have drug laws. You want the truth, so I am telling you the truth.”
Chimeres — from the French “chimerique” which means anger — is anyway a racist label tagged onto anyone who is poor, says Aristide. It is not true that the people who once trumpeted the rise of the “slum priest” have turned against him, he says.
He has written about “poverty on the edge of globalisation” in a book The Eyes of the Heart. Aristide sees Haiti as a victim of the big guns who wield the big economic stick. In 1739 when the French revolution took place Haiti sent France $218 million.
When it came to Haiti’s revolution, France sent only $78 million. Haiti at the time was producing 60 percent of the world’s coffee.
“Still, France refused to acknowledge our independence,” says Aristide.
Another story: “In 1825 Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer had to pay 90 million francs, which is more than $21 billion, to France in order to get France to recognise our independence. They never paid, so we seek restitution.
“Although France said slavery is a crime against humanity, we have not yet addressed the issue of liberation. We are not seeking confrontation but consultation, which means respectful, dialogue. That is why I am ready to be involved in a constructive dialogue with the UN, with the US and France. The only way for them not to lose face is to go back to the democratic model.”
South Africans are not strangers to the burning tyre and the street riot. It is 28 years since the June 16 Soweto riots sparked turbulence across the country.
We have not forgotten that democracy is always at stake. In Aristide’s small, ill-fated country, where 85 percent of its 8,5 million are burdened with the rotten fruits of poverty, recent flash floods and mud slides have brought more calamity. We know Haiti’s plight and the perils of HIV and malnutrition.
But the news from up north and the comparisons Aristide makes with Iraqi violence and his particular situation force us beyond the ordinary concerns of our own African renaissance. Aristide’s visit connects us to a broader stream.